A spreading hepatitis outbreak that has claimed the lives of six children has infectious disease experts across the country scrambling for answers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed all six deaths last week. The CDC also said the the outbreak of liver disease has spread to 180 young patients reported in 36 states and territories over the past seven months.
The total 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 it tested and 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 yet been discovered. Lab tests are underway 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 was closely researching any link between the hepatitis epidemic and the virus that killed 1 million Americans.
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Melissa Nolan, an 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 the COVID vaccine.
“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.”
Adenovirus has been detected in nearly half of the children and continues to be a “strong lead,” the CDC said. But Nolan noted that adenoviruses are usually linked to much less dangerous illnesses, such as conjunctivitis.
“It’s not common to see severe liver damage caused by an adenovirus,” she said. “It could be a new form of adenovirus. Or it could be something completely new.”
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.