NEW YORK — Health officials in several countries are investigating mysterious cases of severe liver disease in children and believe it may be linked to a type of virus commonly associated with the common cold.
The UK has investigated at least 74 cases of children with hepatitis or liver inflammation, the World Health Organization said on Friday. Three similar cases in Spain and a few in Ireland are being investigated, the WHO said.
“Given the increase in cases reported over the past month and improved case-finding activities, more cases are likely to be reported in the coming days,” WHO officials said. in a press release.
The American children were between 1 and 6 years old and two required liver transplants. The European cases are in a similar age range, although some are older, WHO officials said.
The WHO first became aware of the unusual illnesses earlier this month when it learned that 10 children in Scotland had liver problems. One fell ill in January and the other nine in March. All fell seriously ill and were diagnosed with hepatitis after being taken to hospital.
The liver processes nutrients, filters the blood and fights infections. The infections caused symptoms like jaundice, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Hepatitis can be life threatening if left untreated.
Laboratory tests ruled out hepatitis viruses types A, B, C, and E that usually cause such illnesses. Officials say they are unaware of international travel or other factors that could have put the children at risk.
But they noted that there has been a recent increase in the spread of adenoviruses.
There are dozens of adenoviruses, many of which are associated with cold-like symptoms, fever, sore throat, and pink eyes. But some versions can trigger other problems, including inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Adenoviruses have been linked to hepatitis in children in the past, but especially in children with weakened immune systems.
Some of the European children tested positive for adenovirus, and some tested positive for COVID-19. But more lab work is needed to explore any potential association with specific viruses, the WHO said.
Alabama health officials say they have been studying an increase in hepatitis among children since November. In each case, the child tested positive for adenovirus. Officials are exploring a link to a particular version – adenovirus 41 – which is normally associated with intestinal inflammation.
None of the Alabama cases had underlying health conditions that would appear to put them at risk for liver disease, health officials said.
“Right now, adenovirus may be the cause, but investigators are still learning more, including ruling out the most common causes of hepatitis,” the CDC said in a statement.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.