‘Mysterious hepatitis’: Everything we know so far about the new cases in Austria

Austria confirmed two children have been hospitalised with suspected hepatitis of 'unknown origin', what do we know about the disease?

'Mysterious hepatitis': Everything we know so far about the new cases in Austria
Two children are in Austrian hospitals after suspected 'mysterious' hepatitis cases Photo by SJ Objio on Unsplash

After many cases of hepatitis with unclear origin were reported in several European countries, Austria has its first suspected cases. 

Two children affected were hospitalised in Vienna on Monday.

They are not in critical condition, Austrian media reported, citing Ministry of Health information.

The reports could be connected to a string of “mysterious hepatitis” cases that the World Health Organisation has reported as being detected in several countries. 

The first cases of severe acute hepatitis with unknown cause were reported earlier this month across central Scotland, WHO said.

After that, dozens of patients were identified in the United Kingdom, all young children. There are now reports of confirmed cases in 11 countries as of April 21st.

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However, the World Health Organisation warns that it is not clear if there has been an increase in hepatitis cases or an increase in awareness after the first reports.

The children present acute hepatitis, which means they have liver inflammation. The cases are aged one month to 16 years old, and seventeen children (approximately 10 per cent) have needed liver transplantation – at least one death was reported, according to the WHO.

What is hepatitis?

According to the NHS, hepatitis is the term used to describe inflammation of the liver – it is usually the result of a viral infection, liver damage caused by drinking alcohol, or rare autoimmune hepatitis, when the immune system attacks and damages the liver.

There are several types of hepatitis. The viral infection is mainly transmitted by contaminated food and drink or contact with infected blood.

Austria’s health authorities mention many other causes of liver inflammation, including disorders of blood flow in the liver and non-alcoholic fatty liver hepatitis (NASH).

So which type has been affecting the children?

These infections have been called “mysterious” because none of the five types of known viruses that cause hepatitis was found in the children.

Health authorities are still investigating the cause of the liver issues, mainly since no other epidemiological risk factors, including recent international travel, have been found in the children.

In 74 of the 169 cases, laboratory tests have detected adenovirus, which is a common virus that causes cold-like symptoms. But, according to WHO, the new coronavirus has also been identified in 20 cases of those that were tested. And 19 of the children had a co-infection of both.

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However, the organisation states that further investigations are ongoing and that it is not possible to draw a conclusion at this moment. The presence of the adenovirus is one hypothesis for the underlying cause of the disease, but “it does not fully explain the severity of the clinical picture, according to the health authority.

This virus is a common pathogen and usually causes limited infections, such as conjunctivitis, bladder infection, and the stomach flu. It is not known to be a cause of hepatitis in otherwise healthy children.

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Could it be caused by the coronavirus vaccine?

The World Health Organisation is clear on this, saying that hypotheses related to the side effects from the Covid-19 are not supported as the vast majority of the affected children didn’t receive the vaccination.

In Italy, where 11 cases have been confirmed, the health authorities report that not a single one of the sick children had been vaccinated against Covid-19, broadcaster ORF said.

WHO does consider that increased susceptibility among young children following a lower level of circulation of adenovirus during the Covid pandemic could be a factor. Another hypothesis is the potential emergence of a new adenovirus or consequences of the co-infection with Covid.

What should I do if I have symptoms?

The WHO recommends that people take the standard prevention measures for adenovirus and other common infections, which include regular hand washing and respiratory hygiene.

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There are no recommended restrictions on travel or trade with the United Kingdom, where most cases have been registered, or any other country where cases are identified, the organisation said.

The NHS tells parents that if their child has symptoms of hepatitis, including yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), they should be taken to their doctor.

“Good hygiene, including supervising hand washing in young children, can help prevent infections that can cause hepatitis.” the UK health authority added.

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More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

The Federal Government unveiled a package looking to attract more than 75,000 new workers to the nursing and care professions - including people from abroad.

More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

Austria has unveiled a €1 billion reform package to improve working conditions for health sector professionals.

In a press release this Thursday, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the package would include higher salaries for nurses.

“There will be massive measures to make the nursing profession more attractive”, the minister said.

For 2022 and 2023, the government will offer a total of €520 million as a monthly salary bonus for the professionals, Rauch said. This should last initially for at least two years until other measures start taking effect.

Training for the career will also receive investments, according to the minister. There will be a federal training subsidy of at least €600 per month.

In addition, a nursing scholarship for those switching (or switching back) to the nursing profession of up to €1,400 will be funded by the Austrian Employment Agency AMS.

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As a measure to protect workers and keep them from turning to other professions, the government explained that all those older than 43 years old will receive an extra week of paid holidays. Additionally, all employees in inpatient long-term care will receive two hours of time credit per night shift.

​​Among the more than 20 measures that the Ministry will detail in the coming days are steps to increase help for those in need of care and of relatives that care for their families, according to the statements given in the press release.

Caring relatives will receive a family bonus of €1,500 per year if they provide most of the care at home and are themselves insured or co-insured. The employment in 24-hour care is also to be “made more attractive” – but details are still pending.

Bringing in international help

The government is also turning outside of Austria and the European Union to attract more professionals.

In the future, nurses who complete vocational training will receive “significantly more” points in the process to access the so-called Rot Weiss Rot (RWR) residence permit. They will also increase the points given for older professionals, facilitating the entry of nurses from 40 to 50 years old.

RWR applicants need to reach a certain threshold of points based on criteria including age and education to get the permit.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

The recognition of training acquired abroad will be significantly simplified, accelerated and debureaucratised, the government promises. And nurses will be able to work as nursing assistants until the formal recognition of their foreign qualifications is completed.

Long-needed reform

“People in care work have long deserved these improvements”, Rauch said.

The government expects the package to create more than 75,000 new workers to fill the thousands of open positions in the sector by 2030.

Green Party leader Sigrid Maurer stated that the measures will be an essential step towards gender equality. “After all, it is mainly women who work in the care professions, especially taking care of relatives at home”.

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The government announcement comes as several protests are scheduled to take place throughout Austria this Thursday, which is also Tag der Pflege (Day of Care).

Health and care sector professionals are taking to the streets to demand better hours and pay and protest against staff shortage, overload, and burn-out.

“We have been calling for better conditions and better pay for years. Thousands of beds are now empty because we don’t have enough staff. In Styria, about 3,000 of a total of 13,000 beds in the nursing sector are currently closed,” Beatrix Eiletz, head of the works council of Styrian Volkshilfe told the daily Der Standard.

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It is not uncommon that nurses will quit their jobs and move to completely different professions, thereby increasing the gap, the report added.

The problem is an old one in Austria – but it has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.