Sixth child dies of unexplained hepatitis in US as global cases top 600

Enlarge / Liver damage in a patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

A sixth child has died in the United States of an incomprehensible inflammation of the liver – aka hepatitis – and the number of unexplained cases has risen to 180 in 36 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest death was announced at a Friday press briefing led by CDC Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases Jay Butler, who said it was reported to the agency on Thursday. He did not say in what state the death occurred.

In addition to the deaths, 15 of the 180 cases required liver transplants, Butler reported. The cases all occurred in children under the age of 10, but only involved preschoolers, with the median age being around 2 years.

The latest US tallies fuel a global phenomenon that now includes more than 600 cases in 31 countries, including 15 deaths. But, despite the growing numbers, international health experts are still scrambling to figure out what’s behind the diseases after ruling out the more obvious possibilities, such as hepatitis A, B, C, D viruses. summer.

tricky numbers

In today’s briefing, Butler was careful to note that while the latest total of 180 cases may seem like a concerning increase from the 109 cases reported by the CDC two weeks ago, most of the 71 new cases reported were identified retrospectively and actually happened weeks or months ago. . In fact, only 7% of the 180 cases have occurred in the past two weeks, Butler said.

He was also careful to avoid saying the cases were part of an outbreak, noting that the agency isn’t detecting an overall increase in the number of unexplained hepatitis cases it typically sees. And the 180 cases over the past seven months have not clustered geographically or temporally. They’ve been fairly evenly distributed among the 36 states, and the total month-over-month case count is generally flat, Butler reported.

Although pediatric hepatitis cases are not monitored nationally, the CDC estimates that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 cases each year, according to Umesh Parashar, head of the CDC’s Viral Gastroenteritis Branch. , who also spoke at the briefing. Butler added that about 30 to 50 percent of these pediatric hepatitis cases go unexplained each year. Thus, the 180 unexplained cases over a period of seven months do not sound the statistical alarm.

It’s possible, Butler speculated, that the cases highlighted now have always been there and simply haven’t been identified and investigated before.

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