Suddenly, hundreds of kids have shown symptoms of hepatitis. Why is that? The investigators have something to say.
Last October, several young kids went to the hospital with severe and unusual liver failure, and they were tested negative for all the usual suspects behind liver disease except a common virus best known for causing mild colds, pink eye, or stomach flu.
“One patient is a fluke; two is a pattern,” says Markus Buchfellner, a pediatric-infectious-disease doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Two quickly became three and then four.
Doctors quickly alarmed local health authorities and the CDC, and the investigators found that nine such cases of unusual hepatitis in kids were known in Alabama.
Buchfellner initially suspected that the disease is local, but this spring in U.K., the same disease showed up among kids. This prompted the CDC to bring the number of suspected cases across the U.S. to 109.
70% of the cases globally have tested positive for adenovirus, according to the WHO, but experts have failed to find adenovirus in any kid’s liver. Another possibility is that COVID caused the whole phenomenon, but the kids affected with SARS-CoV-2 virus only make up 18% of the total cases.
Now, there is a leading suggestion of how adenovirus and coronavirus are interacting with each other and causing this severe infection. Severe liver failure is very rare, and when it happens, a large proportion of cases remain entirely mysterious---half of the cases remain so unknown that even identifiable causes are non-existent.
But exactly why is this disease prevailing now? In the weeks ahead, experts will look at 3 key pieces of data to parse the remaining hypothesis.
The first is to investigate the most obvious question: Have these kids been tested positive for COVID before?
Most kids with hepatitis tested negative for the coronavirus, but still, this investigation is carried out.
Even if we get the data on the COVID antibody test, experts will still want to go deeper into this mystery and determine whether coronavirus is involved.
A second key piece of data is about the adenovirus itself. Adenovirus is a very common one, and investigators want to see whether kids hospitalized with hepatitis are more likely to test positive for it. If they are, then the link between this mysterious disease and adenovirus would become much stronger.
The third important piece of data will be on the adenoviruses found in the kids. Genome sequencing technique would allow the determination of whether the viruses recently mutated, and whether this mutation has something to do with liver failure.
Whatever the cause of the hepatitis is, what’s important now is that the kids in Alabama are recovering, and doctors stressed that the risk of severe hepatitis for healthy kids remains very small.