Possible cases of childhood hepatitis remains in 'single digits' in Canada: B.C. provincial health officer

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B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the number of possible cases of 'unusual' childhood hepatitis are below 10 in Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the number of possible cases of 'unusual' childhood hepatitis are below 10 in Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

British Columbia's provincial health officer says all 17 pediatric hospitals across the country are looking out for an "unusual" childhood liver disease but the number of possible cases remains in the single digits.

Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters none of the possible cases of severe acute hepatitis, or liver inflammation, are in British Columbia, but it isn't her place to identify where they are or exactly how many.

Henry says health officials are developing common case report forms and testing algorithms to be used across the country.

"We'll be watching this very carefully," Henry said. "As we start looking more closely for things, there's clearly a probability that we will identify some cases."

On Wednesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it was looking into reports of liver inflammation among young children in Canada and investigating any links with the United Kingdom and the United States.

British health officials have said they are investigating what's behind a spike there, with at least 169 cases of "acute hepatitis of unknown origin" and one death, noting there is increasing evidence the cases could be linked to a common virus.

A leading suspect is adenovirus, which was detected in 75 per cent of the confirmed cases tested, the Health Security Agency in the United Kingdom said in statement Monday.

U.S. authorities said this month that they were investigating a cluster of otherwise unexplained hepatitis cases diagnosed in nine Alabama children who also tested positive for adenovirus.

Countries reporting acute, unexplained hepatitis cases among children

Two other theories suggest the disease is caused by a toxin or viral co-infections with COVID-19, which has been linked with inflammation in other parts of the body, Henry said.

Henry said health officials are reviewing data on cases around the globe. A special investigation team is working on case definitions based on what health authorities are seeing in the U.K. and the United States, in particular, according to Henry.

The first cases likely appeared in October, she said, and about 10 per cent of children have required liver transplants, Henry said.

"These children are getting very sick with gastrointestinal sickness, so things like tummy pain, diarrhea, vomiting, fevers, and then they progress to develop jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes very quickly," she said.

The usual viruses that cause infectious liver inflammation — hepatitis A to E — were not detected in more than 100 cases under investigation in the United Kingdom.

The illness is not linked to COVID-19 vaccinations, Henry added, given that the majority of sick kids are under age 6 and therefore ineligible for vaccines.

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