No evidence hepatitis in children is caused by vaccinated breastfeeding mothers

11 May 2022
What was claimed

The recent rise in cases of hepatitis in children is primarily affecting children aged one month to four years old who have been actively breastfed in the last 12 months. All the children were breastfed by vaccinated mothers.

Our verdict

Recent child hepatitis cases in England are concentrated in children aged between three and five, and there is no evidence they have been breastfed in the past 12 months by vaccinated mothers. There is no evidence the cases of hepatitis are linked with the Covid-19 vaccines.

A screenshot of an article posted to Facebook claims the “sudden rise of unvaccinated children with liver damage, were breastfed (by fully vaccinated mothers)”.

The apparent implication of this is that recently-reported cases of hepatitis in children, primarily in the UK, had been caused indirectly by Covid-19 vaccines. 

The article claims that the “sudden rise of liver damage and hepatitis in children seems to be affecting those between the ages of 1mo – 4 years of age”, adding: “What they arent [sic] telling the public is that the majority of the cases are those under 4 years of age who are breastfed and who have been actively breastfed (within the last 12 months).

“The children are unvaccinated, but the breastfeeding mothers (in 100% of the cases) have been vaccinated with at least 2 doses.” 

These claims are completely unsupported by official information. The article includes links to articles published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and Sky News, but none of these mention breastfeeding, nor that the mothers of these children were all vaccinated. 

According to the most recent technical briefing published by the UKHSA, as of 3 May there have been 163 UK cases of acute hepatitis identified in children under the age of 16 in 2022. 

Of these, 118 were identified in England and predominantly in children aged between three and five years old with a median age of 3. So the article appears to be correct in saying the “majority of the cases are those under 4 years of age.”

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that these children had been breastfed by “mothers (in 100% of the cases) [who had] been vaccinated with at least 2 doses”. 

Breastfeeding is not mentioned at all in the UKHSA technical briefing, and Covid-19 vaccines are not being investigated as a potential cause of hepatitis in children. The briefing document states: “There were no COVID-19 vaccinations recorded in cases aged under 5, the age group which makes up over 75% of hepatitis cases. There are fewer than 5 older case-patients recorded as having had a COVID-19 vaccination prior to hepatitis onset. 

“There is no evidence of a link between COVID-19 vaccination and the acute hepatic syndrome.”

The article also claims “incidences of hepatitis is [sic] also hitting the 11 - 16 year old age group”, adding that the majority of children in this group had been vaccinated with at least one dose. The information provided in the UKHSA technical briefing does not include a detailed breakdown of cases by age, and the only mention of vaccination in older child hepatitis cases is the section highlighted above, stating that “fewer than five” of the older patients had been vaccinated against Covid-19. 

The source of this claim isn’t made clear in the article, and doesn’t appear to be supported by other official sources, such as the WHO, which says: “Hypotheses related to side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines are currently not supported as the vast majority of affected children did not receive COVID-19 vaccination.” 

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Asked about the link drawn by the article between hepatitis in children and breastfeeding mothers, Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said: “I have not heard this from any bona fide reliable source. 

“There seems no scientific likelihood that it’s related to vaccinated mothers breast feeding.”

Professor Will Irving, an expert in hepatitis based at the University of Nottingham, told Full Fact: “The lead hypothesis for these [hepatitis] cases in children is that it’s due to an adenovirus infection. I guess the link is that people will understand that one of the Covid vaccines [AstraZeneca] is derived from an adenovirus.

“The adenovirus that’s being found in these children is a completely different adenovirus from the one which is being used in the Oxford [AstraZeneca] vaccine… It’s a chimpanzee adenovirus that is in the vaccine, and it is very much a human adenovirus that has been found in these children, and they are genetically completely distinct from each other. 

“There is no way in which any component of the adenovirus in the vaccine… is in any way mutating into the adenovirus that has been reported from these children.” 

Of the 163 UK cases of acute hepatitis in children, 126 have been tested for adenovirus and it was detected in 91 of them.

A UKHSA spokesperson said: “All of the adenoviruses detected from the blood of affected children have been shown to be a different type (type 41) to those used in the two vaccines which are approved in the UK.

“The two COVID-19 vaccines approved in the UK that use adenovirus as a route to deliver relevant SARS-CoV-2 antigens are AstraZeneca (which uses a type 5 chimpanzee adenovirus (ChAd5) and Janssen which uses a human type 26 (Ad26) adenovirus. 

“Both vaccines use replication deficient adenoviruses which will only replicate in the specific cell lines used for manufacture. Therefore, they do not replicate in humans and cannot be spread from vaccinated individuals to other members of the population.”

While the Janssen vaccine has been authorised in the UK, it has not yet been used and it was reported in October 2021 that all doses ordered by the UK would be donated to other countries. 

Photo courtesy of Wes Hicks 

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