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

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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.

Pediatric hospitals in certain regions of China are reportedly facing overwhelming challenges as they contend with an influx of sick children. Chinese authorities attribute this surge in flu-like illnesses during the winter to the relaxation of COVID-19 measures. Responding to media reports and information from ProMed, a global outbreak surveillance system, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for additional details regarding “clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China.” Following the release of the WHO statement, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency published an article quoting officials from the National Health Commission who stated their close attention to the diagnosis and care of children with respiratory illnesses. While concerns about infections in China may evoke memories of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO’s request for clarity is standard practice. Until a response is received from Beijing, the reasons behind this spike in infections remain unknown.

Since October, northern China has reported an “increase in influenza-like illness,” compared to the corresponding period over the past three years, according to the WHO. Last week, China’s National Health Commission acknowledged a rise in several respiratory diseases across the country, including influenza, COVID-19, mycoplasma pneumoniae (a bacterial infection affecting younger children), and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Officials attributed this increase to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, a trend observed in other nations like the UK and the US after pandemic-related measures were lifted.

Professor Francois Balloux of the University College of London Genetics Institute suggests that China may be experiencing a significant wave of childhood respiratory infections, especially in the first winter post-lockdown, which likely reduced the circulation of respiratory bugs and decreased immunity to endemic bugs. The WHO underscores the need for clarity on whether the reported pneumonia outbreak and the overall rise in respiratory infections in Beijing are connected, prompting an official request for more detailed information. The organization urges people in China to adopt basic precautions, including vaccination, mask-wearing, and handwashing.

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