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Family Health

Hepatitis Outbreak: What Parents Need To Know About Uptick in Mysterious Cases

Published: May 26, 2022

With recent news of a hepatitis outbreak that has sickened over 100 children and killed at least five across the United States, parents are rightfully concerned. Perhaps most alarming: The cause of the outbreak is unknown.

Since October, medical providers have seen an uptick in cases of acute, severe hepatitis causing liver damage and failure. The cases have affected children ages 1 month to 16 years in the U.S. – including Nebraska – and over a dozen other countries.

While researchers work to find answers, here’s what parents should keep in mind.

 

What Is Hepatitis, and What Causes It?

Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, an organ that helps process nutrients, filter blood and fight infection. It’s commonly caused by a virus, and hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are the most common forms of viral hepatitis in the U.S. Hepatitis can also be caused by alcohol use, toxins, and some medications and medical conditions.

This outbreak, however, hasn’t been connected to known hepatitis viruses.

 

Signs of Possible Infection

Viral hepatitis is rare in children. Its symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Jaundice (a yellow tinge the skin or eyes)
  • Joint pain
  • Pale or white stools
  • Vomiting

These symptoms warrant urgent medical evaluation and can lead to hospitalization. In addition to the known deaths tied to the outbreak, it has caused some children to need liver transplants.

 

Hepatitis and Vaccination

Pediatricians routinely vaccinate children for hepatitis A and B. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. While this hepatitis outbreak hasn’t been associated with known hepatitis viruses, it’s still a good idea to make sure your kids are up to date on all of their vaccinations.

That includes the COVID-19 vaccine. No link has been found between the COVID-19 vaccine and the current hepatitis outbreak. In fact, many of the children sick with hepatitis weren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccination because of their young age.

 

Cause of the Outbreak

Researchers are working hard to determine the cause of the current hepatitis outbreak. There’s a lot we don’t know, but we do know that over half the infected children who were investigated also tested positive for adenovirus type 41. That doesn’t mean there’s a definitive link between adenovirus and hepatitis.

Adenovirus is common in children and has over 60 strains. It’s easily spread by aerosolized droplets (often from coughs and sneezes) and stool particles, and it can remain on surfaces for long periods of time.

Adenovirus symptoms can last seven days or longer, but most people experience mild illness. People with weakened immune systems or existing respiratory or cardiac issues are more at risk for serious illness. Adenovirus symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Eye drainage and redness
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

Adenovirus can be detected via nasal swabs and stool samples, but doctors don’t regularly test for it because it doesn’t change how we manage its symptoms. For most children, over-the-counter fever reducers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be paired with rest and good hydration.

Parents should contact their pediatrician if their child has a prolonged fever and fewer wet diapers or decreased urination.

 

Child washing hands

Prevention and Precautions

It’s important for parents to keep the current hepatitis outbreak in perspective. While the situation is serious and there are many unknowns, hepatitis infections in children aren’t common. And the best way to guard against hepatitis and adenovirus infections is to continue to take commonsense health precautions. Remember to:

  • Avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth with your hands
  • Clean high-touch areas – but note: While adenovirus can be resistant to some household cleaners, bleach is particularly effective against it.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Stay home if you’re sick, and avoid others who are sick
  • Stay up to date on vaccinations
  • Wash hands properly and often

Above all, remember to stay in touch with your pediatrician if your child becomes ill or you have questions. We want nothing more than to see every child stay healthy and thrive.

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About the Author

Dr. Natalie Fleming, a pediatrician at Methodist Physicians Clinic, is humbled to serve as a reliable and compassionate resource for patients and their families.

“Parents are trusting me to care for their tiny little person who can’t speak to us but clearly has needs and an opinion. It’s my job to help translate that for families.”

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