Chronic hepatitis implies that clinical and biochemical features of hepatitis have been present for at least 6 months; but irreversible liver damage may occur with subclinical disease suggesting that pathological features should also define chronicity. We examined 28 children with hepatitis B negative chronic active hepatitis to determine whether the severity of abnormal biochemical tests of liver function, raised serum immunoglobulin concentrations, and positive serum autoantibodies, which are characteristic features in immunosuppressant responsive disease, varied with the duration of symptoms. The pattern of abnormality in these patients was similar whether the disease had been present for less than three months, from three to 6 months, or for more than 6 months, and apart from lack of hyperbilirubinaemia was similar in patients presenting with complications of cirrhosis without previous symptoms of liver disease. Two children died of liver disease. The remainder showed a clinical, biochemical, and immunological response to prednisolone or azathioprine, or both. These drugs have now been withdrawn in 8 patients without relapse, and disease activity is completely suppressed in 13. Unfortunately, 15 survivors have definite cirrhosis and a further five have possible cirrhosis. Eight of 10 survivors with symptoms of more than 6 months duration before treatment have cirrhosis compared with two of 12 with symptoms of less than 6 months. It is suggested that consideration of this diagnosis at onset of symptoms and immediate immunosuppressant treatment after appropriate confirmatory investigations may reduce the incidence of cirrhosis in hepatitis B negative chronic active hepatitis in children.
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