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Kentucky and Indiana investigating potential hepatitis cases in children

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Kentucky health officials are investigating six potential cases of hepatitis – inflammation of the liver – in young children, including two in Louisville.

The Indiana Department of Health was investigating nine potential cases as of Friday. 

Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said the cases are among the more than 270 reported nationwide with no yet known cause.  

Symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored stools, joint pain and jaundice. Health officials have ruled out common causes of hepatitis.

Stack said these cases are respiratory illnesses, which may also be spread via bodily fluids. He said they’re not related to COVID-19 or COVID vaccines, but some cases appear to have a possible link with adenovirus type 41 – which causes the common cold. 

He cautioned parents not to worry unnecessarily, but to take precautions like making sure their children wash their hands and cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing. If they have symptoms, parents should contact a pediatrician. 

“This is not something for you to panic about or to get excessively alarmed about, but it is something for you to be careful about,” he said. 

“It’s not unusual for some cases of hepatitis in children to remain unknown. And it’s not yet clear whether there’s been an increase in the overall number of children who are getting hepatitis.”

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, interim director at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, advised parents to make sure their children are up to date on vaccinations.

“If your child is sick, keep them away from others, teach them to cover their coughs and sneezes and seek medical attention if you are concerned about their health,” he said in a statement. 

The CDC reports that, in general, between 30 and 50 percent of hepatitis cases in children may have no obvious cause. 

The U.S. investigation of cases dates back to October, when five Alabama children were hospitalized with significant liver illness. A few of the five experienced liver failure. 

NPR reported May 19 that the CDC was investigating 180 cases, including several children who had to undergo liver transplants and five who died earlier this year. Many of the cases dated back as far as October, but were only recently reported. 

The World Health Organization reported in late May a total of 650 probable cases of unexplained hepatitis in children across 33 countries. 

The CDC is limiting the current investigation to children younger than 10 years old who were identified between October and now. National updates can be found here

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.