Mysterious liver disease rising in the UK – how worried should we be? Doctor weighs in

Hepatitis: Dr Hilary Jones outlines the main symptoms

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The rise in hepatitis cases in children across the UK is dismaying the medical community and parents alike. More than 160 cases of hepatitis –  inflammation of the liver – have been recorded in the UK. How worrying is the current trend?

Speaking to, Doctor Clare Morrison of MedExpress, who has over 25 years experience in the NHS, struck a note of cautious concern.

“Although the majority of cases have made a full recovery, several children (about 10 percent of cases) have required a life-saving liver transplant,” Doctor Morrison said.

She continued: “They will have permanent consequences, including the need for immunosuppressant medication. A small number have even died.”

According to the doc, the fact that it’s unclear exactly what’s causing these infections, “and that they have appeared suddenly and spread around the world, is concerning to any parent”.

“However, the individual risk is still small.”

What could be driving the rise?

According to Doctor Morrison, a popular hypothesis doing the rounds is that the cases are caused by a variant of a common virus called “adenovirus”.

“This usually just causes cold-like symptoms or gastrointestinal problems,” she explained.

The doc continued: “In many of the hepatitis-affected children, adenovirus was detected, but it isn’t known whether this was causative or coincidental.”

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She said it could be that adenovirus has suddenly become more prevalent now that lockdown has eased, and children are mixing without having had the chance to build up immunity previously.

Others have suggested that the cases may be directly related to Covid infection or even Covid vaccination, “but there is no evidence that this is the case”, the doc added.

Since this newspaper spoke to Doctor Morrison, a new possible explanation has come to the fore.

Investigators are exploring a possible link between dogs and the recent spike in cases of sudden onset hepatitis in UK children.

Family questionnaires have shown “relatively high numbers of dog-owning families or other dog exposures”, said the UK Health Security Agency, with 64 of 92 cases with available data mentioning dog exposure.

The UKHSA said “the significance of this finding is being explored” but that it could be coincidental because dog ownership is common in the UK.

What are the key symptoms?

Doctor Morrison said: “The initial symptoms tend to be non-specific, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain.”

She continued: “These can occur in many different viruses, but with hepatitis this leads to jaundice, characterised by yellowing of the skin and eyes, itchy skin, and dark urine.”

How to respond

If concerned, parents should consult their GP for further advice, as early detection is important, said Doctor Morrison.

“A blood test could be taken to check for liver enzymes, which will be significantly raised in hepatitis.”

As the doc explained, with any viral infection, hygiene is crucial to prevent spread, so wash hands regularly, and keep children away from school or nursery for at least 48 hours after a bout of diarrhoea or vomiting.

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