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By Isabelle Banin
A mysterious outbreak of severe hepatitis in children has parents worried about protecting their little ones from this potentially dangerous disease.At least 169 cases of serious liver infection in children have been reported in nearly a dozen countries. On April 25, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced it has learned about three suspected cases of severe hepatitis in children under 10, with one case resulting in a liver transplant.Hepatitis is a dangerous liver infection that causes inflammation. Health officials believe the pediatric cases may be linked to adenovirus 41, a common virus that typically causes respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Vincent F. Biank, M.D., a NorthShore Pediatric Gastroenterology specialist board-certified in Pediatric Liver Disease and Liver Transplant, answers common questions about this outbreak and offers suggestions for parents of young children.
What is causing this outbreak?Dr. Biank: Researchers are currently investigating, but believe adenovirus, a common seasonal virus, may be the culprit. The strain linked to this hepatitis outbreak, adenovirus type 41, generally causes gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea, and respiratory symptoms.
What symptoms should parents look out for?Dr. Biank: One of the main symptoms of hepatitis is jaundice, yellowing of the skin, and/or eyes. Other common symptoms of hepatitis in children include abdominal pain, dark-colored urine, light-colored stools, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, joint pain, and loss of appetite. Hepatitis may also cause cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional changes.
How can parents prevent the spread?Dr. Biank: Common methods to protect against adenoviruses include respiratory hygiene, such as handwashing, and regularly cleaning surfaces. Children should be especially careful to wash their hands before eating or touching their face. If your child is sick, vigilantly monitor their condition and seek medical attention if they start showing symptoms associated with hepatitis.Is there a treatment?Dr. Biank: Because the term “hepatitis” is a generic term meaning inflammation of the liver, there is not one definite treatment. The treatment is really just careful observation and monitoring the patient’s condition so that they don’t go into liver failure. For this specific viral hepatitis, we also do not have a cure.Has adenovirus caused hepatitis in children before?Dr. Biank: Adenovirus is a common cause of hepatitis, but usually you may get a mild bump in your liver numbers. This is dramatic in that we are seeing huge increases in the liver number (which corresponds to liver injury). What is more concerning is that this virus is associated with 10% of patients needing a liver transplant. That percentage may not sound like a lot, but it is far more than any other virus.