Several countries, including the U.S., have identified or are investigating unexplained hepatitis cases in children. While the reported cases are appearing in clusters, they remain rare. About 200 children are affected worldwide.
"What we're hearing from the places that are reporting these cases is that there are some children — usually previously healthy kids without underlying medical conditions — who have been admitted to hospital with severe hepatitis or severe inflammation of their liver," says Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a Mayo Clinic pediatric infectious diseases specialist.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide health alert asking parents and health care professionals to be on the lookout for symptoms and report any potential hepatitis cases without known cause to local and state health departments.
Understanding hepatitis in children
"Hepatitis is just a term that refers to inflammation of the liver. There can be many different causes. In kids, the most common causes are infections — usually viral infections. But it can also be caused by certain medications; certain immune system issues like autoimmune hepatitis, for example; or exposure to certain toxins," says Dr. Rajapakse.
"The symptoms of hepatitis relate to the liver not being able to do its job properly. And, so, a symptom that you might notice is yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes. Sometimes the whites of the eyes are where it shows up first because it's easier to pick up than in the skin. Kids may also complain of abdominal pain, so especially in the right upper part of the abdomen, which is where the liver sits, they may have pain specifically there. But it can be anywhere in the abdomen. You might notice dark urine or light-colored stool."
Other symptoms include fever, nausea, decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea.
What's causing these cases of hepatitis?
Scientists are still trying to understand what may be causing these cases of hepatitis in children.