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What you need to know about child hepatitis

Known hepatitis cases are on the increase among children in the UK (Alamy/PA)
Known hepatitis cases are on the increase among children in the UK (Alamy/PA)

Health officials are investigating a surge in hepatitis cases among children in the UK.

Since the start of the year, 111 youngsters have required hospital treatment for liver inflammation (hepatitis), with the majority of cases occurring in children under the age of five.

Ten young patients have needed a liver transplant.

One theory, according to a briefing by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), is that cases may have been fuelled by a common virus called the adenovirus – and a lack of exposure to it during the pandemic.

– What is hepatitis?

“Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. There are various causes of hepatitis, including viral infections and alcohol consumption,” said Dr Stephanie Ooi, a GP at the MyHealthcare Clinic in London.

“Some cases of hepatitis will resolve with no ongoing issues; however, there are certain cases that can be longer lasting, and cause more serious damage to the liver, and affect liver function.”

According to the NHS, hepatitis E – caused by the hepatitis E virus – is the most common cause of short-term (acute) hepatitis in the UK.

– What are the symptoms?

Sick boy with his head in his hands
Symptoms may include feeling sick, a high temperature and tiredness (Alamy/PA)

According to the NHS, short-term (acute) hepatitis often has no noticeable symptoms, so you may not realise you have it.

If you do experience symptoms, Dr Ooi said: “You may notice a high temperature, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), fever, generally feeling unwell, dark-coloured urine and pale-coloured stool. In addition you may have tummy pain, have a reduced appetite and itchy skin.”

The NHS lists muscle and joint pain and feeling unusually tired all the time as further symptoms.

– What should parents and carers do?

“The number of cases of hepatitis in children is increasing, which is understandably causing some concern amongst parents,” said Dr Ooi. “The best thing to do is to see your GP if you notice any of the above symptoms, and are worried about hepatitis.

“Some of the symptoms can present in other conditions, so it does not necessarily mean your child has hepatitis – but jaundice in particular needs to be urgently highlighted to a doctor.”

Hepatitis rise in children
Since the start of the year, 111 children have required hospital treatment for hepatitis (Peter Byrne/PA)

Dr Meera Chand, director of clinical and emerging infections at the UKHSA, said: “Normal hygiene measures such as thorough handwashing (including supervising children) and good thorough respiratory hygiene, help to reduce the spread of many common infections, including adenovirus.

“Children experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal infection, including vomiting and diarrhoea, should stay at home and not return to school or nursery until 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped.”

– What are the treatment options?

Dr Ooi said: “The treatment will depend on what is causing the hepatitis, so this will vary. Your child will be assessed and monitored and have any further tests that need to be done.

“Treatment will also be based on symptoms, i.e. giving adequate pain relief if they are in pain or feeling uncomfortable.”

In very serious cases, sufferers might need a liver transplant.