108 in the UK. 5 in Ireland, 3 in Spain. And suspected cases also in Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA and Italy. Strange hepatitis affecting very young children under the age of six, the causes of which are currently unknown. But given the timeframe, it’s difficult not to suspect that even in this case, Covid had a hand in it. Direct emergence of the disease as a result of a previous infection. Or, at least according to some experts, indirectly more likely, by preventing us from having early childhood exposure to viruses during the long months we’ve been forced into lockdown, and now making the impact of infections more serious.
The alarm went off on April 12 when the European Centers for Disease Prevention and Control issued an alert warning of an unusual increase in cases of acute hepatitis in pediatric populations in the UK. The most common symptoms – writes the ECDC – are vomiting, yellowing of the skin and sclera (the whites of the eyes). All of this is due to acute liver inflammation – or hepatitis – a relatively rare childhood problem which, while usually treatable, can progress to the point of requiring a transplant, as unfortunately happened in eight of the small English patients.
There are many possible causes: food poisoning, reactions to drugs or vaccines, viral infections. The data collected by the British health authorities seems to rule out the involvement of food poisons as well as vaccines for the time being, since none of the children had received the one against Sars-Cov-2. Speaking of viruses, only a very small percentage of young patients tested positive for Covid shortly before hospitalization and no one appears to have contracted hepatitis A, B, C or E viruses, the most common viral causes of these diseases.
In the absence of certainties, the experts can initially only limit themselves to the formulation of hypotheses. The most specific points the finger at adenoviruses, viruses that are extremely common in children but usually cause mild colds. “The most likely hypothesis at the moment revolves around adenoviruses – writes a team of experts from Eurosorveliance studying the cases registered in Scotland – or a new variant with clinical symptoms different from those known, or one of those traditionally circulating that has more serious effects small children whose immune systems have never been exposed to the virus”.
Hepatitis is a well-known, although extremely rare, complication of infections caused by adenoviruses. Therefore, according to experts led by researcher Kimberly Marsh, who works for the Scottish Health System, we could be facing a new adenovirus with more severe and frequent liver symptoms than usual. Or, more likely, the unintended effects of social distancing. The anti-Covid measures have reduced the chances of encountering all viruses, including those we all usually contract during the first few years of life, when they are prone to milder symptoms. With the reopenings, children are being reinfected, and for little ones, encountering the virus with an unprepared immune system may have put them at risk of developing severe symptoms such as hepatitis.
Efforts to identify the cause of this abnormal pediatric hepatitis appear to continue in the coming weeks. For the time being, however, there are no concrete indications to restrict travel to countries with registered suspected cases. And experts are urging parents to avoid panic: normal hygiene practices are enough to limit the risk of contracting adenovirus or other potential sources of infection, and the number of confirmed cases of childhood hepatitis, unusual as it is, remains extreme small amount. .