At a time when Covid-19 is relatively discreet, another disease is challenging public health officials this month of April. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that it would launch research into hepatitis of unknown origin, mostly found in young Britons.
Who are the victims?
This hepatitis, never identified in the past, mainly affects children under 10 years of age. Nothing new so far. “Hepatitis in children can happen, it’s not uncommon, but it’s always more annoying to see children affected by an epidemic,” comments Professor Yazdan Yazdanpanah, specialist in infectious pathology, who recalls that a large proportion of the cases detected were acutely susceptible to hepatitis. Some cases required transfer to a specialized liver disease unit. Still others – six so far – have had to undergo a transplant.
How many cases have been reported?
Overall, the UK has reported 74 cases of acute hepatitis to the World Health Organization, according to a latest census released on Friday. “Of the confirmed cases, 49 are in England, 13 in Scotland and the others in Wales and Northern Ireland,” explains the UK Health Security Agency. Five confirmed or possible cases have also been reported in Ireland and three in Spain, according to the WHO, which expects new reports in the coming days. No deaths were recorded.
No case has been detected in France either, but Yazdan Yazdanpanah does not rule it out. “As long as it affects several geographical areas, several countries, it is possible,” estimates the scientist, “alert” to the occurrence of this disease.
What are the symptoms ?
The disease in question is manifested by symptoms noted in many forms of hepatitis. The UK Health Safety Agency (UKHSA) lists the most important ones: “dark urine, light gray stools, itchy skin, yellowing of the eyes and skin, muscle and joint pain, high temperature, abnormal tiredness, loss of appetite and abdominal pain”.
Why are we talking about hepatitis?
Hepatitis is literally an inflammation of the liver. “It’s caused by inflammation of the liver enzymes, meaning cells in the liver are killed and markers go up, and this is usually followed by jaundice, more commonly known as jaundice,” explains Professor Yazdan Yazdanpanah. In this particular case, it is a case of hepatitis in the sense that the liver is the main organ affected, but no known viral hepatitis (A to E) was detected in the affected children.
What could be causing this new disease?
Multiple possibilities are being explored, as hepatitis “can be transmitted virally, through drugs, or even through food,” explains Yazdan Yazdanpanah. The WHO emphasized on Friday that Covid-19, or an adenovirus that has been on the rise in the UK in recent weeks, has been detected “in several cases”. However, their role is “not yet clear,” the organization continues. “Is it a coincidence that the affected children are carriers of Covid-19? It’s quite possible, believes Yazdan Yazdanpanah. Studies need to clarify that. “Other non-infectious factors are also being looked at, such as the trace of a food cause. The only certainty is that the link to the Covid vaccine has been ruled out as it has not been administered to any of the confirmed cases in the UK.
What to do to protect yourself against it?
“You have to stick to the usual basic rules, wash your hands,” recommends Yazdan Yazdanpanah. These measures “help reduce many of the infections we are investigating,” said Meera Chand of the British Health Security Agency. It also urges parents to be alert for the appearance of possible signs in their children and to contact a doctor if necessary. To date, “no other epidemiological risk factor has been identified, particularly recent international travel,” assures the WHO, which is “closely monitoring the situation” and recommending no restrictions on travel with the UK and other countries where cases have been identified.