The World Health Organization (WHO) is looking for more information about a reported cluster of outbreaks of respiratory illnesses and undiagnosed pneumonia among children in northern China.
News of the surge in illness first came to light on November 13 when officials from the Chinese National Health Commission reported an increase in the number of respiratory disease cases in China.
Authorities blamed the rise on kids returning to school and the lifting of COVID restrictions, leading to the circulation of known pathogens such as influenza, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID), mycoplasma pneumoniae (a common bacterial infection that typically affects younger children), and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
A similar rise in these diseases has been reported in many other countries, including the US and UK, in the past year or so.
On November 23, the issue was flagged on ProMED-mail, a publicly available outbreak reporting system. Citing Chinese media reports, the post said that “children's hospitals in Beijing, Liaoning, and other places were overwhelmed with sick children, and schools and classes were on the verge of suspension.”
“Parents questioned whether the authorities were covering up the epidemic. In the early morning, Beijing Children's Hospital was still overcrowded with parents and children whose children had pneumonia and came to seek treatment,” the post said.
By November 22, the WHO had caught wind of the reports and officially issued an appeal for more information.
“We have also requested further information about recent trends in the circulation of known pathogens including influenza, SARS-CoV-2, RSV, and mycoplasma pneumoniae, and the current burden on health care systems. WHO is also in contact with clinicians and scientists through our existing technical partnerships and networks in China,” the statement reads.
News of a mysterious disease outbreak in China may jog some unpleasant memories from the past four years, but it’s worth noting that the WHO’s call for information is part of standard practice. The language used in the call-out suggests they’re expecting a spike of known pathogens, like the ones mentioned above, not any kind of novel disease outbreak.
Most scientists commenting on the news affirmed this view, stating that this doesn't bear any worrying signs of a novel disease outbreak – at least as the evidence stands today.
“At present, there is too little information to make a definitive diagnosis of what is causing this epidemic in China,” Prof. Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said in a statement.
“Overall, this does not sound to me like an epidemic due to a novel virus. If it was, I would expect to see many more infections in adults. The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure."
“The current wave in China is likely caused by different respiratory pathogens such as RSV or the flu. Though it is also probable that a substantial proportion of cases may be due to the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae, which is generally fairly harmless,” explained Professor Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director at the UCL Genetics Institute.
“China is likely experiencing a major wave of childhood respiratory infections now as this is the first winter after their lengthy lockdown, which must have drastically reduced the circulation of respiratory bugs, and hence decreased immunity to endemic bugs. This phenomenon of ‘lockdown exit’ waves of respiratory infections is sometimes referred to as ‘immunity debt’,” he said.
“Unless new evidence emerged, there is no reason to suspect the emergence of a novel pathogen,” Professor Balloux concluded.