Alarming global rise in pediatric hepatitis: Expert Q&A


What has been established about the possible connection to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, particularly as it relates to coinfection 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 coinfection.

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 health care 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 (for example, 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 versus 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?

Dr. Balistreri is the Dorothy M.M. Kersten Professor of Pediatrics, director emeritus of the Pediatric Liver Care Center, medical director emeritus of liver transplantation, and professor at the University of Cincinnati; he is also with the department of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

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