Hepatitis Outbreak Sees 17 Children Needing Liver Transplants, 1 Dying: WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Saturday that a child has died and 17 others need liver transplants amid a hepatitis outbreak that has hit multiple countries.

The health organization said in a statement that at least 169 cases of acute hepatitis of an unknown origin were detected across 12 countries among children aged one month to 16 years old.

"It is not yet clear if there has been an increase in hepatitis cases, or an increase in awareness of hepatitis cases that occur at the expected rate but go undetected. While adenovirus is a possible hypothesis, investigations are ongoing for the causative agent," the WHO said in its statement.

Most virus infections were found in the U.K. as 114 cases were reported as of Thursday, while nine cases were detected in the U.S., according to the WHO. Cases were also identified in Spain, Israel, Denmark, Ireland, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, France, Romania, and Belgium.

Hepatitis outbreak sees 17 children needing transplants
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that a child died and 17 others need liver transplants amid a hepatitis outbreak that hit multiple countries. Above, a patient is treated at Rush University Medial Center on January 31 in Chicago. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

"The clinical syndrome among identified cases is acute hepatitis (liver inflammation) with markedly elevated liver enzymes," the organization said in its statement, adding that most cases reported symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Most reported cases didn't have a fever.

"The common viruses that cause acute viral hepatitis (hepatitis viruses A, B, C, D and E) have not been detected in any of these cases. International travel or links to other countries based on the currently available information have not been identified as factors," the WHO's statement continued.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday issued a health advisory notifying health care providers and public health authorities to be alert for children with liver damage due to unknown causes.

The alert came after a number of children in Alabama were detected with hepatitis and adenovirus infection at a children's hospital.

"In November 2021, clinicians...notified CDC of five pediatric patients with significant liver injury, including three with acute liver failure, who also tested positive for adenovirus," the CDC said in a statement on its website.

The CDC identifies hepatitis as inflammation of the liver that can be caused by viral infections, alcohol use, toxins, medications, and certain other medical conditions. However, it was unknown what the causes were behind the cases in Alabama.

"It is unknown at this time what is causing liver damage in children in Alabama. Some children have tested positive for a common childhood virus called adenovirus," Dr. Aaron Milstone, a professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who specializes in treating infectious diseases in children, told Newsweek Thursday.

The CDC added that "all children were previously healthy. None had COVID-19. Case-finding efforts at this hospital identified four additional pediatric patients with hepatitis and adenovirus infection for a total of nine patients admitted from October 2021 through February 2022."

Meanwhile, the WHO said this week that the U.K. saw a "significant" increase in adenovirus infections among the public after it had low levels of circulation earlier on during the pandemic.

The health organization also said that determining the cause of the infections requires investigating factors such as "increased susceptibility amongst young children following a lower level of circulation of adenovirus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential emergence of a novel adenovirus, as well as SARS-CoV-2 co-infection."