Respiratory illness surge sparks WHO scrutiny in China

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An influx of patients inundating hospitals and outpatient departments in China

NEW YORK, Nov 26, (Agencies): China is currently grappling with a surge in respiratory illnesses, particularly among children, prompting heightened attention from the World Health Organization (WHO). The situation has led to overwhelming numbers of patients flooding hospitals and outpatient departments, causing concern for both health authorities and the international community.

At a Beijing children’s hospital, officials reported an alarming daily admission rate of at least 7,000 patients, surpassing the facility’s capacity. Similarly, the largest pediatric hospital in nearby Tianjin reportedly received over 13,000 children at its outpatient and emergency departments in the past week. Liaoning province, situated about 690 km northeast of Beijing, is also experiencing a high number of cases.

The increasing cases have raised eyebrows at the WHO, prompting the organization to issue a formal request for comprehensive disease data on respiratory illnesses and reported clusters of pneumonia in children. Such public requests for detailed information are rare for the UN health agency, typically being handled internally. However, the WHO’s China office has termed this request as “routine.”

Chinese health authorities have responded by stating that they have not identified any “unusual or novel diseases.” Instead, they attribute the rising infections to a combination of known viruses, coupled with the country’s first full cold season after the strict COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in December.

The WHO, while acknowledging the increased cases of “influenza-like illnesses” in northern China since mid-October, has emphasized that any link between clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia and the rise in respiratory infections remains unclear.

Public health surveillance system ProMED issued a notification on November 21 about reports of “undiagnosed pneumonia,” suggesting a widespread outbreak of a respiratory illness in multiple areas of China.

Parents in Shanghai express mixed sentiments, with some not overly concerned about the surge in sickness, stating that colds are common worldwide. However, health experts stress the need for a scientific perspective amid the pandemic.

Chinese health authorities propose a link between the outbreak and mycoplasma pneumonia, known as “walking pneumonia,” a bacterial infection affecting children since May. Symptoms include a sore throat, fatigue, and a lingering cough that can last for weeks or months, potentially developing into pneumonia in severe cases.

Experts caution against premature conclusions, with Bruce Thompson from the University of Melbourne noting that preliminary data suggests nothing out of the ordinary. The WHO recommends preventive measures, including vaccination, isolation for the sick, mask-wearing, and seeking medical care as needed.

As the situation unfolds, the international community awaits more information to better understand and address the respiratory illness surge in China.

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