Health experts are probing whether the family dog could have anything to do with the unusually high numbers of children being infected with hepatitis.
More than 160 children have been diagnosed with the inflammatory liver disease in recent months – with 11 of those needing a liver transplant.
The number of children falling ill with the infection, in which most report sickness and jaundice as their main symptoms, has got health experts investigating possible causes behind the mystery rise.
Tests and analysis has suggested a possible association with adenovirus, the most frequently detected virus in samples from infected children that have been tested, and a virus which is responsible for many common childhood diseases.
And while hepatitis is a known but rare side affect with adenovirus infections, with so many children falling ill in such a short space of time, experts are probing whether there are any other factors that also might be contributing to the increase.
While there is no link to the Covid-19 vaccine, because the majority of children suffering have not yet had it, possible previous coronavirus infection in youngsters and a change in children’s immune systems or susceptibility due to reduced exposure to certain illnesses because of lockdown are also being looked at as well as any change in the adenovirus genome itself.
But in their latest report, health officials also reveal a more unusual line of inquiry that is being explored – and that is any potential link to the family pet.
It says a review of questionnaires and interviews with parents whose children have been ill with hepatitis has found ‘relatively high numbers of dog owning families or other dog exposures in cases’.
The report, which acknowledges that pet dog ownership is common in the UK, says work is now ongoing to explore any possible link and the ‘significance of this finding is being explored’.
With the majority of cases in children under five years old, the UK Health Security Agency is reminding families that good hygiene measures including thorough hand washing, remains the best line of defense in stopping the spread of many common infections including adenovirus.
Dr Meera Chand, Director of Clinical and Emerging Infections at UKHSA, said: “It’s important that parents know the likelihood of their child developing hepatitis is extremely low. However, we continue to remind everyone to be alert to the signs of hepatitis – particularly jaundice , look for a yellow tinge in the whites of the eyes – and contact your doctor if you are concerned.
“Our investigations continue to suggest that there is an association with adenovirus and our studies are now testing this association rigorously. We are also investigating other contributors, including prior SARS-CoV-2, and are working closely with the NHS and academic partners to understand the mechanism of liver injury in affected children.”