CDC Warns About Severe Hepatitis Cases in Children

Young girl is lying in a hospital bed
Young girl is lying in a hospital bed

Getty Images / Sebastian Rose

Health officials are sounding the alarm after several cases of acute hepatitis were reported in children recently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide health advisory on April 21, urging doctors to watch out for the unusual liver inflammation.

So far, 10 states have reported cases of the mysterious pediatric hepatitis: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. At least three children required liver transplants; one child died in Wisconsin. All of the patients were between 1 month and 16 years old.

The alert was initially raised after nine children in Alabama—all under 10 years old and previously healthy— were diagnosed with severe hepatitis from October 2021 through February 2022. Two school-aged children in North Carolina also developed it. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health "These children presented to providers in different areas of Alabama with symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness and varying degrees of liver injury including liver failure." All of the children recovered.

The health issue isn't just confined to America. The United Kingdom has reported more than 100 cases of sudden onset hepatitis in children under 10 since January 2022. At least eight of these kids needed a liver transplant. Dozens of pediatric hepatitis cases have also been treated in Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, and other countries.

While officials aren't entirely sure what's causing the increase in hepatitis, some of the affected children had adenovirus—and in particular adenovirus type 41—which is a common virus that causes flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms. Indeed, all children who were previously sequenced in Alabama had adenovirus. And in the United Kingdom, 77 percent of those tested for adenovirus had positive results.

"A possible association between pediatric hepatitis and adenovirus infection is currently under investigation," says the CDC, adding that its advisory "serves to notify U.S. clinicians who may encounter pediatric patients with hepatitis of unknown etiology to consider adenovirus testing and to elicit reporting of such cases to state public health authorities and to CDC."

The confusing thing is that adenovirus isn't usually associated with hepatitis in otherwise healthy children. Instead, hepatitis is caused by different "viral infections, alcohol use, toxins, medications, and certain other medical conditions," says the CDC.

Doctors are exploring other possible sources of the liver inflammation as well. Currently, there's been no link to COVID-19 infection or vaccination. None of the affected children received a coronavirus vaccine.

It's important that parents don't panic about this news. Cases of severe hepatitis remain rare in children. Experts are working to understand the cause, whether it turns out to be adenovirus or something else.

Still, contact your child's pediatrician if you notice signs of serious hepatitis, which include fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes). Hepatitis is almost always treatable with proper care.

To prevent adenoviruses, follow the same precautions as you would against COVID-19 and other viruses. Wash your hands often, keep your distance from visibly sick individuals, and stay home when you're not feeling well.