A spreading hepatitis epidemic that has killed six children is forcing infectious disease experts to find answers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the sixth death last week. The CDC said the liver disease outbreak has expanded to 180 young patients reported in 36 states and territories over the past seven months.
The number of cases rose by 71 in two weeks, but the CDC said most of them were “retrospective” patients who may have been sick weeks or months earlier.
“Not all of them are recent, and some may ultimately not be related to this ongoing investigation,” the CDC said in a statement. The agency said the tests ruled out some of the viruses that commonly cause hepatitis.
Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, told a briefing that no common exposures or other patterns had been discovered. Lab tests are being done to take a closer look at the virus genome and other potential pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The CDC has been closely examining any link between the hepatitis outbreak and the virus that has killed 1 million Americans.
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Melissa Nolan, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, told USA TODAY that the outbreak is almost certainly not linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
“The fact is that a large number of cases involve children under the age of 5 (years old) who were not eligible for the vaccine,” Nolan said. “It’s not a bad batch.”
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Adenovirus was detected in nearly half of the children, a “strong lead,” the CDC said.
Nolan noted that adenoviruses are usually linked to much less dangerous illnesses, such as conjunctivitis.
“It’s not common to see severe liver damage from an adenovirus,” she said. “It could be a new form of adenovirus. Or it could be something completely new.”
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Severe hepatitis in children remains rare, the CDC pointed out.
“However, we encourage parents and caregivers to be aware of the symptoms of hepatitis – especially jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes – and to contact their child’s healthcare provider if problem,” the CDC said.