NEW DELHI: China has urged caution as it faces a significant increase in respiratory illnesses, particularly in schools and hospitals. This comes as the World Health Organization, having requested disease data from the Chinese government, confirmed that no unusual or novel pathogens have been identified.
As China experiences its first full winter since easing stringent Covid-19 restrictions last December, there has been a noticeable rise in respiratory cases. This spike is particularly evident among children in northern regions such as Beijing and Liaoning province, where hospitals are reporting extended waiting times.
The State Council has predicted a peak in influenza cases this winter and spring and anticipates continued high rates of mycoplasma pneumoniae infections in certain areas. Additionally, there is a concern about a potential resurgence of Covid-19 infections.
The State Council emphasized the importance of vigilant infectious disease reporting, stating, "All localities should strengthen information reporting on infectious diseases to ensure information is reported in a timely and accurate manner."
This health crisis gained international attention earlier this week when the WHO, referencing a report by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) about unexplained pneumonia clusters in children, sought additional details from China.
Recent spike in cases
In northern China, there has been a notable increase in respiratory illnesses, especially among children. This surge has raised concerns online about a potential new pandemic, four years after the emergence of Covid-19 in the country.
Reports of overwhelmed hospitals
ProMED, a public disease surveillance system, reported that some Chinese hospitals were inundated with sick children, primarily due to a pneumonia outbreak. This situation is most prevalent in Beijing, Liaoning province, and other regions. Symptoms observed include fever, lung inflammation without cough, and pulmonary nodules.
Parental concerns and treatment
At a Beijing children's hospital, parents reported cases of mycoplasma pneumonia in their children, a treatable condition with antibiotics. These reports have reignited fears on social media about a new virus or another Covid-like situation.
Health authorities' response
Chinese health officials attribute the rise in infections to a combination of factors: the end of Covid restrictions, the onset of the cold season, and the spread of known viruses such as influenza, mycoplasma pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2.
China has recently started monitoring mycoplasma pneumonia and continues to track flu, RSV, and SARS-CoV-2 trends. The WHO acknowledges the limited information available but suggests that an increase in respiratory illnesses is expected with winter's arrival.
WHO gets into action
The World Health Organization, having previously criticized China for lack of transparency during the Covid pandemic, has requested more information from China about these "undiagnosed pneumonia" cases. Beijing assured that no unusual or novel pathogens have been detected.
The WHO advises people in affected areas to follow standard precautions against respiratory illnesses, including vaccination, isolation if symptomatic, testing, and mask-wearing when necessary. They currently advise against travel restrictions to China based on the available information.
What experts are saying
Experts suggest that the surge is likely due to the end of Covid restrictions, lack of prior immunity in children, and the arrival of winter, rather than a new pathogen. Catherine Bennett highlights the reduced exposure of young children in China to common pathogens due to prolonged lockdowns.
Prepared for any exigencies: India
India is prepared for any kind of exigency that may emerge from the current influenza situation in China, the government said Friday. The focus is on monitoring the outbreak of H9N2 avian influenza and respiratory illness clusters among children in China.
The Union health ministry has assessed that the risk to India from both the H9N2 avian influenza case and the respiratory illness clusters in China is low, the government said in a statement.
The ministry acknowledged media reports and a statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the clustering of respiratory illness cases among children in northern China.
A meeting led by the Directorate General of Health Services was convened to discuss India's preparedness against avian influenza, particularly in light of a human case of H9N2 reported in China in October and communicated to the WHO, the statement added.
(With inputs from agencies)