The World Health Organization has formally asked China for details regarding an alarming increase in respiratory illnesses and cases of pneumonia among children.
The World Health Organization referenced unconfirmed media coverage and a worldwide infectious disease tracking system in reporting groups of unidentified pneumonia cases in young individuals in the northern region of China. In a statement released on Wednesday evening, the WHO stated that it is uncertain if these cases are related to an increase in respiratory infections reported by Chinese officials.
Experts from other institutions stated that it was necessary to closely monitor the situation. However, they were not convinced that the recent increase in respiratory illnesses in China indicated the beginning of a worldwide epidemic.
The emergence of new flu strains or other viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness. Both SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported on November 13th that China’s National Health Commission observed a rise in respiratory illnesses, which they attributed to the relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown measures. Similar increases in respiratory diseases, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), were also noted in other countries after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
According to reports from the media, a week later, there were clusters of unexplained cases of pneumonia in children in northern China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it is not certain if these occurrences are connected to the recent rise in respiratory infections reported by Chinese authorities or if they are separate incidents. WHO also mentioned that they have asked China for more information regarding the current viruses circulating and any impact on hospitals, using an international legal process.
According to Dr. David Heymann from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it is probable that there is a background of seasonal respiratory infections.
Heymann stated that the task at hand is to identify and understand the outbreaks, and to determine their source. He emphasized the importance of using genetic sequencing and isolating cases in order to effectively address the situation. Heymann previously headed WHO’s efforts during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003.
According to Francois Balloux, a professor at University College London, the recent outbreak of illness in China is most likely caused by respiratory diseases such as influenza, RSV, or a bacterial infection.
According to him, China may be facing a notable surge in childhood infections due to the lifting of lockdown measures during the winter season. This could have lowered children’s resistance to common illnesses.
Balloux stated that unless new evidence is presented, there is no need to suspect the appearance of a new disease-causing agent.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that there has been an increase in cases of influenza-like illnesses in northern China since mid-October, which is higher than the last three years. The U.N. health agency rarely requests publically for more specific data from countries, as these types of inquiries are usually made privately.
There have been widespread cases of illness in hospitals in northern China, particularly in Beijing. Health officials are urging parents to bring their children with milder symptoms to clinics or other medical centers.
According to an online article by state-owned China National Radio, the internal medicine department at Beijing Children’s Hospital has been treating an average of over 7,000 patients per day, which is beyond the hospital’s capacity.
According to a written Q&A published by the official Xinhua News Agency, the National Health Commission of China has advised that children with minor symptoms should initially seek treatment at primary healthcare facilities or pediatric departments in general hospitals. This recommendation is due to the overcrowding and lengthy wait times at larger hospitals.
The health commission has been closely monitoring the high occurrence of contagious illnesses in children and is providing guidance to local authorities on improving coordinated scheduling and implementing a tiered system for diagnosis and treatment.
Following the outbreak of SARS in southern China in 2002, Beijing authorities instructed doctors to conceal patients, even going as far as transporting them in ambulances during visits by WHO scientists. This caused the WHO to issue a warning about potentially shutting down its office in China.
Nearly 20 years after the fact, China delayed providing important information about the coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO) when the virus first appeared in late 2019. Despite this, WHO publicly praised China for their efforts in containing the virus, before it ultimately spread globally.
The agency stated that while WHO is requesting more information, they suggest that individuals in China take steps to decrease the chances of developing respiratory illnesses. These include getting vaccinated, isolating oneself if feeling sick, wearing masks if necessary, and seeking medical attention when necessary.
Reporting from London was Cheng, with contributions to this report from AP researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing.