A further incident management meeting is being held this afternoon. However, the most recent information is that, to date, Public Health Scotland has identified 13 cases of severe hepatitis requiring hospital admission in children aged between one and 10 years old. The cases are spread across six health boards. Although most cases have presented since March, one child was admitted to hospital in early January 2022. Cases have also been detected in other parts of the United Kingdom.
These cases are unusual in that the hepatitis has not been caused by one of the recognised strains of virus. In an average year, we would expect to see only seven or eight such cases without another underlying diagnosis. At present, we do not know the cause of the hepatitis, but all potential causes are being thoroughly investigated. A number of children have tested positive for adenovirus, which is generally mild, but which can, in some rare cases, cause hepatitis.
The most effective way to minimise the spread of adenovirus and other common childhood viruses is through good hand and respiratory hygiene. Therefore, I urge anyone who is taking care of younger children to supervise hand washing and ensure good hygiene. I also urge parents to contact their general practitioner or other healthcare professional if they notice signs of jaundice in their child, such as a yellow tinge in the whites of their eyes or on their skin. Other symptoms include dark urine, pale grey-coloured stool, itchy skin, muscle and joint pains, tiredness, feeling sick, a high temperature, a loss of appetite and stomach pain.
Although investigations into the cause are on-going, we are able to definitively confirm that there is no connection between the Covid-19 vaccination and those cases. None of the infected children has received a first dose. Although I know that many people will be concerned by the situation, I ask them to please be assured that Public Health Scotland is working hard to identify the cause and is working closely with health agencies across the United Kingdom and with international partners.
The situation is, naturally, very concerning. There has been an increase in cases across the UK, with the World Health Organization having been informed and the UK Health Security Agency co-ordinating that investigation. It is vitally important that work to identify the factors that are causing the infections moves at pace, and that a high level of support is offered to the affected children and families.
We all want to avoid speculating on the causes of infection, which could cause further anxiety in communities; however, there have already been media reports suggesting a number of potential causes. I note what the minister said about Covid-19 vaccination, but there have also been stories about toxins in food, drink and toys, which all cause concern in the wider community.
Will the minister say when she expects further detail on the causes, in order to avoid such speculation and to ensure that the right plan is in place to tackle the concerning infections?
I definitely give a commitment to update Parliament when we have definitive information—I have no problem with doing that.
We are working not only with UK agencies but with international partners, and Public Health Scotland published a
Eurosurveillance journal article to alert international colleagues. I am aware that there have been a number of reports in the US of a similar type of hepatitis. Therefore, it is a global concern, which people around the world are working on.
At present, there is no known cause, so I cannot put an end to the speculation, but I assure the public that all potential causes are being explored. At the moment, infection is considered to be the most plausible cause. There are a number of clinical advisers who would be better placed to give more information on the matter, and I am more than happy to get that information to parliamentary colleagues as smoothly as possible.
I thank the minister for her undertaking. I think that everyone in the chamber would welcome that detail as the situation develops, because it is concerning.
To push the minister further on her previous answer, how does the Government intend to increase awareness of the symptoms among parents and carers, given the importance of early diagnosis and health interventions? Public Health Scotland has highlighted the importance of increased hand and general hygiene, as the minister alluded to. How will the Government support that messaging for families at home and in early learning and childcare settings and school settings, particularly at a time when people might be becoming more lax or less observant in that regard because Covid-19 regulations are changing?
I am more than happy to get back to the member with definitive answers on that, but it seems sensible that we work closely with healthcare professionals, education colleagues and Parent Club, which is an excellent resource that is trusted by parents in Scotland, to ensure that the appropriate information is made available.
Over the past couple of years in relation to Covid, we have been practising good respiratory hygiene by coughing into our elbows and washing our hands after coughing. With this virus, if it is adenovirus, it is particularly important to clean hard surfaces. Therefore, all the lessons that we have learned over the past couple of years will stand us in good stead in facing this particular threat.
It is concerning that an unusual number of hepatitis cases have been detected in young children across Scotland’s central belt. Although I appreciate that Public Health Scotland and the UK Health Security Agency are investigating the matter at pace, what urgent steps is the Scottish Government taking, in addition to the measures that the minister has mentioned, to trace the outbreak and to raise public awareness, particularly among parents and guardians, of hepatitis symptoms so that those who are susceptible to it are better protected and able to receive life-saving treatment far more quickly?
As soon as the issue was signalled to us, we put out communications. As soon as we were sure that there was something to tell the public about, we very quickly followed that up with public information. I am aware that, because so much is going on in the news agenda at the moment, not everybody is engaged with that. I am more than happy to reflect on and consider whether there are better, more specific means of communicating, particularly with healthcare professionals, parents and education facilities, to ensure that everybody is well informed about what we are looking for.
As I said in my earlier answers, the situation is evolving. We are not entirely sure what the causative agent is. However, there are certain rules and guidance that we can follow to try to reduce the risk, regardless of the cause.