Alarming Global Rise in Pediatric Hepatitis: Expert Q&A

William F. Balistreri, MD


May 05, 2022

This spring, global health advisories have been issued regarding an alarming — and as-yet unexplained — uptick of hepatitis in children. Currently, over 200 cases have been reported worldwide, a relatively small amount that nonetheless belies a considerable toll, including several deaths and the need for liver transplantation in a number of patients. The long-term implications are not yet known. Global health officials are working hard to determine a cause, with many focusing on the underlying cases of adenovirus that several patients have presented with.

To understand more, Medscape reached out to frequent contributor William F. Balistreri, MD, a specialist in pediatric gastroenterology and hepatology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, where, to date, they have treated at least six cases of hepatitis in otherwise healthy young children, with one requiring a liver transplant. Dr Balistreri discussed how the outbreak has developed to date, his advice to hepatologists and pediatricians, and where we stand now in this fast-evolving crisis.

Tracing the Outbreak in the United States

How has this outbreak played out thus far in the United States, and what have we learned from that?

Sporadic reports of cases in multiple states are appearing. On April 21, 2022, a health alert was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommending testing for adenovirus in children with acute hepatitis of an unknown etiology.

Baker and colleagues recently described five children with severe hepatitis and adenovirus viremia who were admitted to a children's hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, between October and November 2021. In collaboration with local and state officials, the CDC reviewed clinical records in order to identify patients with hepatitis and concomitant adenovirus infection, confirmed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

By February 2022, a total of nine children were identified. There was no epidemiologic linkage among these nine patients; all were well and immunocompetent. The prodromal features were somewhat similar: upper respiratory infection, vomiting, diarrhea, and jaundice. All children had markedly elevated aminotransferase levels and variably elevated total bilirubin levels. Extensive workup for other causes of acute liver injury (eg, other viruses, toxins/drugs, metabolic and autoimmune diseases) was unrevealing.

Specifically, none had documented severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection. However, in all nine children, adenovirus was detected in whole blood samples. In the six children who underwent liver biopsy, there was nonspecific hepatitis, without inclusions or immunohistochemical detection of viral agents, including adenovirus. In three patients, the liver injury progressed, and despite the administration of antiviral agents, two underwent liver transplantation.

Baker and colleagues also suggested that measurement of adenovirus titers in whole blood (rather than plasma) may be more sensitive.

The CDC has recommended monitoring and surveillance in order to more fully understand the nature of the illness.

European and Global Cases

What has been the experience with this in Europe and elsewhere globally?

In mid-to-late 2021, several cases of acute hepatitis of unknown nature in children were identified in Europe. Public health officials in the United Kingdom investigated the high number of cases seen in children from England, Scotland, and Wales. They noted approximately 60 cases in England, mostly in children aged 2-5 years.

Marsh and colleagues reported a cluster of cases of severe hepatitis of unknown origin in Scotland affecting children aged 3-5 years. In Scotland, admitted cases were routinely tested for SARS-CoV-2. Of the 13 cases, five had a recent positive test. They discussed the possibility of increased severity of disease following infection with Omicron BA.2 (the dominant SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in Scotland at that time) or infection by an uncharacterized SARS-CoV-2 variant. None of the children had been vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2.

On April 15, 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) Disease Outbreak News published a report of acute hepatitis of unknown etiology occurring in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By April 21, 2022, 169 cases of acute hepatitis of unknown origin in children younger than 16 years had been reported from 11 countries in the WHO European region and one country in the WHO region of the Americas. Approximately 10% required a liver transplantation and at least one death was reported.

What has been established about the possible connection to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, particularly as it relates to co-infection with adenovirus?

In that WHO report of 169 cases, adenovirus was detected in 74 and SARS-CoV-2 in 20. Of note, 19 cases had a SARS-CoV-2 and adenovirus co-infection.

The report's authors emphasized that "while adenovirus is a possible hypothesis, investigations are ongoing for the causative agent." The authors questioned whether this represents a continuing increase in cases of hepatitis or reflects an increased awareness.

The stated priority of the WHO is to determine the cause and to further refine control and prevention actions.

Given the worldwide nature of this outbreak, have connections between any of the cases been made yet?

Not to my knowledge.

What Clinicians Need to Know

What makes this outbreak of hepatitis cases particularly concerning to the healthcare community, in comparison to other childhood diseases that occur globally? Is it because the cause is unknown or is it for other reasons?

It may be a collective heightened concern following the emergence of COVID.

Whether it represents a new form of acute hepatitis, a continuing increase in cases of hepatitis, or an increased awareness because of the well-publicized alerts remains to be determined. We certainly saw "viral-induced hepatitis" in the past.

Young patients may first be brought to pediatricians. What, if anything, should pediatricians be on the lookout for? Do they need a heightened index of suspicion or are the cases too rare at this point?

An awareness of the "outbreak" may allow the clinician to extend the typical workup of a child presenting with an undefined, presumably viral illness.

In the cases reported, the prodromal and/or presenting symptoms were respiratory and gastrointestinal in nature. They include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Specifically, if jaundice and/or scleral icterus is noted, then hepatitis should be suspected.

Should pediatricians consider early referral to a pediatric gastroenterologist or hepatologist?

Yes, because there is the potential for finding a treatable cause (eg, autoimmune hepatitis or a specific metabolic disease) in a patient presenting in this fashion.

In addition, the potential for progression to acute liver failure (with coagulopathy and encephalopathy), albeit rare, exists.

What do hepatologists need to be doing when presented with suspected cases?

The typical clinical picture holds and the workup is standard. The one new key, given the recent data, is to test for adenovirus, using whole blood vs plasma, as the former may be more sensitive.

In addition, it is prudent to check for SARS-CoV-2 by PCR.

What are the major questions that remain and that you'd like to see elucidated going forward?

There are many. Is this a new disease? A new variant of adenovirus? A synergy or susceptibility related to SARS-CoV-2? Is it related to a variant of SARS-CoV-2? Is it triggering an adverse immune response? Are there other epigenetic factors involved? And finally, is this an increase, or is it related to a collective heightened concern following the pandemic?

William F. Balistreri, MD, is the Dorothy M.M. Kersten Professor of Pediatrics; Director Emeritus, Pediatric Liver Care Center; Medical Director Emeritus, Liver Transplantation; and Professor, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He has served as director of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Cincinnati Children's for 25 years and frequently covers gastroenterology, liver, and nutrition-related topics for Medscape. Dr Balistreri is currently editor-in-chief of the Journal of Pediatrics, having previously served as editor-in-chief of several journals and textbooks. He also became the first pediatrician to act as president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. In his spare time, he coaches youth lacrosse.

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