WHO probes China regarding increased respiratory diseases

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By Carina

The World Health Organization (WHO), in its ongoing effort to monitor global health concerns, has recently reached out to China.

This comes in light of reported increases in respiratory diseases and specific clusters of pneumonia in children. The WHO’s office in China described this inquiry as a “routine” procedure, emphasizing the organization’s role in maintaining vigilance over public health matters.

China’s response to this situation was outlined in a press conference held by the National Health Commission on November 13.

Officials have noted a rise in respiratory diseases

The officials reported a notable rise in respiratory diseases. The increase has been attributed to the recent easing of COVID-19 restrictions, leading to the resurgence of various known pathogens.

These include influenza, mycoplasma pneumonia — a bacterial infection more common in younger children — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the virus responsible for COVID-19.

On November 15, the WHO indicated that entities like the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) had observed clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China.

The WHO stated, “It was not clear if these were associated with an overall increase in respiratory infections previously reported by Chinese authorities or separate events.”

WHO requests further information from China

Furthermore, the WHO has requested additional epidemiological and clinical information from China, including laboratory results of the reported outbreaks among children. This request, made through the International Health Regulations mechanism, mandates a response from China within 24 hours.

Moreover, the U.N. health agency has also sought details about the prevalence of known pathogens and their impact on healthcare systems.

WHO remains in close contact with China

The WHO remains in active communication with clinicians and scientists in China through its established technical partnerships and networks.

A statement from WHO China reiterated the normalcy of such requests for information on increases in respiratory illnesses and reported clusters of pneumonia in children from member states.

They also mentioned that the decision to issue a statement on China was driven by the numerous media queries about the situation.

Adding to the complexity, a ProMED alert, based on a report by FTV News in Taiwan, highlighted the issue. However, undiagnosed pneumonia was not mentioned in the previous week’s press conference.

One speaker at the conference noted a perceptible rise in respiratory illnesses this year compared to three years ago, attributing it to a cyclical pattern in diseases like mycoplasma pneumonia.

China braces for first winter since lifting COVID restrictions

As China prepares for its first full winter since lifting COVID-19 restrictions in December, comparisons are drawn with other countries that witnessed similar increases in respiratory diseases post-pandemic measures.

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, commented, “It is just a relatively large seasonal surge, perhaps partly due to chance and partly because there’s a bit of ‘immunity debt’ from the lesser winter surges in the last three years.”

China sees long waiting lines in hospitals

China’s National Health Commission, while not immediately responding to the WHO’s notice, did publish an interview with the state media agency Xinhua, advising parents and mentioning long waiting times in hospitals due to the surge of patients.

Since mid-October, northern China has observed an increase in influenza-like illness, surpassing records from the past three years.

The WHO noted that China has effective systems to capture trends in illness incidence and to report these data to platforms like the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System.

Media reports show crowded Chinese hospitals

Recent media reports and social media posts from cities like Xian in northwest China have shown crowded hospitals with parents and children awaiting medical attention.

There are even visuals of children doing homework while receiving intravenous drips in hospitals.

While the WHO continues to seek more information, it advises the public in China to follow preventive measures against respiratory illness. These include vaccination, distancing from sick individuals, staying home when ill, testing and seeking medical care as needed, wearing masks, ensuring proper ventilation, and regular hand-washing.

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