China: WHO seeks data on ‘pneumonia clusters’ in children

November 23, 2023  –The World Health Organization (WHO) has asked China for more information on “clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia” reportedly spreading among children in the north of the country.

Reports by non-state media say paediatric hospitals in parts of China are overwhelmed with sick children.

Chinese authorities have attributed a spike in flu-like illnesses this winter to the lifting of Covid measures.

The WHO is urging people in China to take measures to reduce transmission.

In a statement, the UN health agency said it wanted more information on reports in the media and from ProMed – a global outbreak surveillance system – of “clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China”.

Pneumonia is a general medical term used to describe an infection and inflammation of the lungs. It can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or fungi.

After the WHO statement was released, state-run Xinhua news agency published an article on Thursday which quoted officials of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) as saying they were paying close attention to the diagnosis and care of children with respiratory illnesses.

While mentions of China and a wave of infection can get people jittery as it brings memories of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s good practice for the WHO to ask for clarity. But until Beijing responds, there is no way of knowing why this spike of infections has emerged.

It is also not unusual for the WHO to ask countries for more information about a cluster of illnesses. They do so almost every day.

A specialist WHO team combs through thousands of media reports and internal surveillance information on circulating diseases from countries on a daily basis. Experts then decide whether they need more information, in case it could have the potential to become a public health emergency of international concern.

But it is unusual to announce the request for more information publicly. In general, this has previously been done through private channels between the WHO and health officials in a country.

The UN agency is no doubt mindful that people might be more jumpy about viruses reported in China with the not so distant memory of Covid-19. The WHO is also trying to be more transparent in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The UK’s health security agency (UKHSA) said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Since October, northern China has reported an “increase in influenza-like illness” compared to the same period over the past three years, the WHO adds.

Last week, the Chinese NHC said there had been a rise in several respiratory diseases across the country: in particular influenza, Covid, mycoplasma pneumoniae – a common bacterial infection affecting younger children – and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Officials attributed the rise to the lifting of Covid restrictions.

Other countries, including the UK and the US, saw similar surges in flu-like illnesses once pandemic restrictions were lifted.

“China is likely experiencing a major wave of childhood respiratory infections now as this is the first winter after their lengthy lockdown, which must have drastically reduced the circulation of respiratory bugs, and hence decreased immunity to endemic bugs,” said Prof Francois Balloux of the University College of London Genetics Institute.

Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia (UEA), said at present there was too little information to make a definitive diagnosis of what was causing the infections.

He added: “Overall, this does not sound to me like an epidemic due to a novel [new] virus. If it was, I would expect to see many more infections in adults. The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure.”

The WHO says it is unclear if the reported pneumonia outbreak and overall increase in respiratory infections reported by Beijing are linked – and has made an official request for more detailed information.

It has urged people in China to take basic precautions like getting vaccinated, wearing masks and hand-washing.

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