SickKids Hospital says seven probable cases of severe acute hepatitis have been reported at the downtown Toronto hospital for children.
The hospital said the cases are of “unknown origin” but do meet the “probable case definition to Public Health Ontario between October 1, 2021, and April 30, 2022.”
The news comes as there have been international reports concerning children with this illness that cause a sudden severe liver disease, often caused by viruses. Children impacted so far range in age from one month to 16 years.
SickKids Hospital said they are looking out for patients with signs and symptoms of hepatitis such as new onset jaundice (yellow eyes), dark urine and/or pale stool that will require further testing. They said they are also recommending a lower threshold for referral for specialist care.
“Every year, SickKids sees patients with severe acute hepatitis of unknown origin who, like the rest of our patient population, may come from across Ontario and Canada,” a spokesperson for the hospital told Global News.
“It remains to be seen whether this number represents an increase in cases of unknown origin compared to similar time periods in previous years or if any of these cases will be confirmed to be caused by a novel clinical entity.”
Most cases of this illness have occurred in Europe. The first U.K. cases were recorded in January, while the U.S. detected its first cases in October in Alabama.
Hepatitis is usually caused by one of several contagious hepatitis viruses, like A and B, which have not been found in the affected children.
In an interview with Global News on Monday, Dr. Upton Allen, chief of infectious diseases at SickKids Hospital, said whenever children have illnesses that are “yet to be explained,” it is “always of concern.”
However, Allen said there are a few “really important points.”
“Number one is that this is, so far, very rare,” he said. “Number two is that we are in the process of trying to evaluate it, to carefully evaluate to determine whether or not the cases that we’re seeing now since October of last year represent a new signal, a really, truly, truly new signal.”
He said SickKids and other large children’s hospitals have seen cases of severe hepatitis in the past, but have not been able to determine the cause.
“And so the first question is: are these cases different from before?” he said, adding that the cause and scope of cases could be different.
“These are things that we’re looking at, we just don’t have the answers just yet.”
Allen said researchers and doctors will be looking at the World Health Organization definition of the severe acute hepatitis to decide if it needs “refinement moving forward.”
He said doctors will also follow a “standard evaluation pathway” so that there is a similar spectrum of tests being done for children who meet the case definition.
Allen said they will also consider storing samples for future testing as doctors “try to refine the list of tests that should be done on samples from children who come into the hospital.”
“It is a process that has to be very deliberate, very carefully done, so that we can get to the bottom of this as soon as possible,” he said.
Allen said, though, that it is “important for families not to panic,” adding that cases of the hepatitis “are rare.”
Allen said parents should look out for the symptoms of the hepatitis in their children.
“It’s also important for families to continue to be to follow those everyday preventive measures that we typically recommend for everyone, using measures such as washing our hands, avoiding people who are sick, staying home when we’re sick, covering cough, sneeze,” he said.
— with files from Global News Aaron D’Andrea and Hannah Jackson