China insists surge in respiratory illnesses is caused by ‘known pathogens’ like flu

Rise in infections caused by overlap of common viruses and not novel virus, says China

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Monday 27 November 2023 08:02 GMT
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Related:More than 40 people struck by outbreak of mystery illness in Chinese city

Chinese authorities on Sunday said flu and a range of known pathogens were behind the rise in respiratory illnesses across the northern part of the country.

China's healthcare system was once again overwhelmed with a wave of pneumonia cases that has become a concern among neighbouring countries and prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to seek more details.

The health ministry claimed the recent cluster of infections was caused by an overlap of common viruses and not by any novel virus.

Spokesperson Mi Feng said there has been a rise in cases linked to viruses such as the influenza virus, rhinoviruses, the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, the adenovirus, as well as bacteria such as mycoplasma pneumoniae.

"Efforts should be made to increase the opening of relevant clinics and treatment areas, extend service hours and increase the supply of medicines," Mr Mi told reporters.

Last week, the WHO asked China for more information on the surge in cases citing a report by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) on clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children.

The spike in cases appears to be driven by children contracting pathogens that two years of Covid-19 restrictions kept them away from, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the acting director of WHO's department of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention.

"We asked about comparisons prior to the pandemic. And the waves that they're seeing now, the peak is not as high as what they saw in 2018-2019," Ms Van Kerkhove told health news outlet STAT.

"This is not an indication of a novel pathogen. This is expected. This is what most countries dealt with a year or two ago," she added.

Local authorities in China have been asked to open more fever clinics and promote vaccinations among children and the elderly as the country braces for the first winter since lifting the draconian "zero-Covid" restrictions.

Beijing earlier called for vigilance and asked people to wear masks to contain the spread of the illnesses amid fears that influenza would peak this winter and spring while mycoplasma pneumoniae infection would continue to be high. It had last month linked the surge in illness to the lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions.

"All localities should strengthen information reporting on infectious diseases to ensure information is reported in a timely and accurate manner," the State Council earlier said.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae infections were mostly seen in children aged five to 14, according to Wang Huaqing, the chief immunisation planning expert for China Centre for Disease and Protection (CDC).

The WHO last week said Chinese health officials on Thursday provided the data, which showed an increase in hospital admissions of children due to diseases including bacterial infection, RSV, influenza and common cold viruses since October.

Chinese officials maintained the spike in patients had not overwhelmed the country's hospitals contrary to the local media reports.

A Beijing children’s hospital earlier told state media CCTV that at least 7,000 patients were being admitted daily to the institution, far exceeding its capacity. The Civil Aviation General Hospital in the capital said its outpatient clinic saw 550-650 visits each day.

The largest paediatric hospital in nearby Tianjin reportedly received more than 13,000 children at its outpatient and emergency departments.

Liaoning province, about 690km northeast of the capital, is also grappling with high case numbers.

Parents in Shanghai said they were not overly concerned about the wave of sickness. They said while it appeared to be more severe, they expected it to blow over soon.

"Colds happen all over the world," Emily Wu told Reuters from outside a children's hospital. "I hope that people will not be biased because of the pandemic ... but look at this from a scientific perspective."

Bruce Thompson, head of the Melbourne School of Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne, said very preliminary data suggested there was nothing out of the ordinary.

"At this stage, there is nothing to suggest that it may be a new variant of COVID," he told the news agency.

"One thing to note is that we can be reassured that the surveillance processes are working, which is a very good thing."

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