Two more British children have needed a liver transplant after being sickened with a mysterious form of hepatitis, health chiefs revealed today.
Ten youngsters have now undergone the critical procedure, with 114 now known to have been struck down by the peculiar illness.
UK Health Security Agency bosses today called on parents to ‘be alert’ to the signs of the liver disease, which has been spotted in 12 different countries, including the US, Ireland and Spain. One child has died so far.
Dr Meera Chand, director of clinical and emerging infections at the UK agency, urged parents to contact the NHS if they are concerned.
The majority of cases have been spotted in under-5s who were initially hit with diarrhoea and nausea before later getting jaundice — the yellowing of the skin/eyes. Other symptoms can include dark urine, grey-coloured faeces, itchy skin, muscle pain, a fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and stomach pains.
Investigations are ongoing but officials believe the illness may be triggered by an adenovirus, which is usually to blame for the sniffles.
Experts say lockdowns may have weakened the immunity of children and left them more susceptible to the virus, or the offending pathogen may have mutated to pose a greater threat. Other theories include a new Covid strain or co-infection with adenovirus and Covid.
UK officials have ruled out the Covid vaccine as a possible cause, with none of the ill British children vaccinated because of their young age. None of the 11 cases in the US were jabbed either.
Almost 170 cases have been spotted since the first cases were publicly recorded in Scotland at the end of March.
Hepatologists today told MailOnline they believe the official numbers may be just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ because many parents may brush off the warning signs.
Professor Simon Taylor-Robinson, a hepatologist from Imperial College London, told MailOnline: ‘I think there are more cases out there.
‘I’d imagine there are more cases than have been reported — but they are likely to be less severe.’
But he added there is no reason to panic because in ’99 per cent’ of cases the liver is able to regenerate and the chances of needing a transplant or dying because of the condition are low.
Professor Alastair Sutcliffe, a paediatrician from University College London, told MailOnline mounting cases are ‘a concerning and depressing situation for families’ but parents should not fear. Up to 20 per cent of hepatitis cases have no known cause.
He said: ‘What is for families to consider [is] if their child develops jaundice after the first few months of life they need medical attention fast.
‘But that is true of any child who develops jaundice after the first few months of life so is not new advice. With one death and no known cause life should continue as before. Nothing is more fearful than fear itself.’
None of the cases have been caused by any of the five typical strains of the virus — hepatitis A, B, C, D and E.
Data gathered has ‘increasingly’ suggested that the rise in severe cases of hepatitis may be linked to a group of viruses called adenoviruses, the UKHSA said.
Adenovirus was found in 75 per cent of the sickened children who were tested for it. Sixteen per cent had Covid.
The UKHSA’s Dr Chand said: ‘Information gathered through our investigations increasingly suggests that this rise in sudden onset hepatitis in children is linked to adenovirus infection.
‘However, we are thoroughly investigating other potential causes.
‘Parents and guardians should be alert to the signs of hepatitis (including jaundice) and to contact a healthcare professional if they are concerned.
‘Normal hygiene measures such as thorough handwashing (including supervising children) and good thorough respiratory hygiene, help to reduce the spread of many common infections, including adenovirus.
‘Children experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal infection including vomiting and diarrhoea should stay at home and not return to school or nursery until 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped.’
The agency also said the number of admissions for the mysterious hepatitis so far in 2022 ‘is equivalent or greater than the number of admissions annually in previous years’.
Top experts have speculated that Covid lockdowns may partly explain the mysterious spate of hepatitis cases, by weakening children’s immunity and leaving them at heightened risk of adenovirus.
Professor Taylor-Robinson told MailOnline: ‘I think it is likely that children mixing in kindergartens and schools have lower immunity to seasonal adenoviruses than in previous years because of restrictions.
‘This means they could be more at risk of developing hepatitis because their immune response is weaker to the virus.’
The WHO has received reports of at least 169 cases of ‘acute hepatitis of unknown origin’ from 12 countries.
Cases were detected in children aged one month to 16, the majority of whom have been hospitalised. The WHO has not disclosed which country the only known death occurred in.