WHO concerned as children struck down by mystery pneumonia outbreak in China

Hospitals overwhelmed with sick children, locals tell the media

Mystery outbreak of respiratory illness in China

Mystery outbreak of respiratory illness in China
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The World Health Organisation has requested “detailed information” from Chinese authorities during an increase in respiratory illnesses and pneumonia among children in northern China.

“Since mid-October, northern China has reported an increase in influenza-like illness compared with the same period in the previous three years,” the organisation said on Wednesday.

Clusters of “undiagnosed pneumonia” in children were reported on November 21 by the media and the Programme for Monitoring Emergency Diseases.

It comes as media reports point to children's hospitals in Beijing and other cities being overwhelmed with sick children and schools on the brink of suspending lessons.

Beijing Children's Hospital is crowded with children seeking treatment, while the lobby of Dalian's Children Hospital is “full of sick children on intravenous drips”, the International Society for Infectious Diseases quoted one report as saying.

“Many, many are hospitalised. They don't cough and have no symptoms,” a man in Beijing, identified only as Mr W, told Taiwan's FTV News.

State-run media has acknowledged overcrowding in children's hospitals, during a period of "high incidence of infectious diseases".

National Health Commission officials on Thursday said children with any respiratory problems for more than three days should seek medical help, according to an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

It is the first such wave since most anti-Covid measures were lifted, and has been “particularly ferocious” since China’s National Day holiday in October, a director of a children’s medical centre in Beijing told local media.

'Pandemic clock ticking'

“This report suggests a widespread outbreak of an undiagnosed respiratory illness in several areas in China as Beijing and Liaoning [province] are almost 800km apart. It is not at all clear when this outbreak started as it would be unusual for so many children to be affected so quickly,” said ProMed Rapporteur Dan Silver. Schools may be the source of exposure he added.

“It is too early to project whether this could be another pandemic, but as a wise influenza virologist once said to me, 'The pandemic clock is ticking, we just do not know what time it is'.”

“It is unclear if these are associated with the overall increase in respiratory infections previously reported by Chinese authorities, or separate events,” the WHO said.

The sharp rise in case numbers followed a press conference held by Chinese authorities on November 13, in which officials from the National Health Commission “reported an increase in incidence of respiratory diseases in China”, attributed to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and a variety of common illnesses, it added.

China, which first reported the outbreak of Covid-19 in late 2019, adopted some of the most stringent rules in the world in an effort to contain the pandemic.

Standing firm with its Zero-Covid policy, which led to the eruption of rare protests late last year, authorities only began to ease regulations in December, lifting lockdowns in several cities and dropping home quarantine requirements in certain cases.

The WHO has requested “additional epidemiologic and clinical information, as well as laboratory results from these reported clusters among children”, it said, as well as information on recent trends in pathogens and “the urgent burden on healthcare systems”.

“While the WHO seeks this additional information, we recommend that people in China follow measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness,” it added, recommending vaccination, wearing masks and other standard measures taken during the pandemic.

Updated: November 23, 2023, 3:11 PM