SHANGHAI, Dec 1 (Reuters) – A request by the World Health Organization for more information on a rise in childhood respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia in China has drawn global attention.
Health officials have not detected any unusual or novel pathogens, the WHO later said, and doctors and public health researchers say there is no basis for international alarm.
However, authorities in Taiwan this week advised the elderly, the very young and those with weakened immune systems to avoid traveling to China.
Here’s what we know about the rise in disease in the world’s second-most populous country, and why experts think there’s no need to panic.
What is happening on the ground?
The rise in respiratory illnesses comes as China braces for its first full winter since China lifted strict COVID-19 restrictions in December last year.
Citing a report by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) on clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children, the WHO last week asked China for more information on the rise in the disease.
Some social media users have also posted photos of children receiving intravenous drips in hospital, while media outlets in cities such as Xi’an in the northwest have posted videos of overcrowded hospitals, raising concerns about possible strains on the healthcare system.
How big is the surge?
The National Health Commission said in a press conference on November 13 that the incidence of respiratory diseases is on the rise, without providing further details.
WHO China told Reuters in an email that “Chinese health officials have advised that the current numbers they are observing are not higher than the peak of the most recent cold season before the COVID-19 pandemic”.
What pathogens are circulating?
The data suggest that the increase is linked to the deregulation of Covid-19 with the circulation of known pathogens such as mycoplasma pneumoniae, a common bacterial infection that usually affects younger children and has been circulating since May.
Influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and adenovirus have been circulating since October.
Is Mycoplasma Pneumonia a Big Concern?
One concern about the rise in respiratory diseases is Mycoplasma pneumoniae, which has also increased in other countries.
The World Health Organization’s COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Gerkov, told reporters on Wednesday that Mycoplasma pneumoniae is not a notifiable disease to the WHO and that it has been on the rise for the past two months but now appears to be on the decline.
“We are following through our clinical networks and working with doctors in China to better understand resistance to antibiotics, which is a problem worldwide, but a particular problem in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asian region,” he said.
Rajib Dasgupta, an epidemiologist and professor of social health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Reuters that in some cases infection with Mycoplasma pneumoniae can cause serious complications, but most people recover without antibiotics.
Why don’t the experts care?
Doctors in China and experts abroad are less concerned about the situation in China, and many other countries have seen a similar rise in respiratory illnesses after easing epidemic measures.
“The cases we’re seeing are not unusual at the moment because it’s still the same cough, cold, fever presentation and the good thing about it is that it’s actually treatable,” said Cecil Bryan, head of pediatrics at Raffles. Medical Group Beijing.
An increase in cases is expected, said Van Gerkov.
“In general, we’re seeing an increase in respiratory infections around the world. We’re seeing an increase in children because they’re school-aged children, and it’s already fall in the northern hemisphere. We’re entering the winter months,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Silver; Editing by Myeong Kim and Miral Fahmy
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