WHO Wants Info From China on Surge of Respiratory Illness

Expert says it does not look like a new virus
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 23, 2023 7:18 AM CST
Surge of Respiratory Illness in China Draws WHO Interest
A woman wearing a face mask carries a child as they walk at a public park in Beijing, on June 1, 2023.   (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

The World Health Organization is asking China to provide details on a wave of respiratory illnesses that doctors have described as worse than in previous years. There have been more cases of respiratory illness reported in northern China since mid-October than during that same period in the three previous years, per Reuters. China's National Health Commission announced the increase on Nov. 13 and attributed it to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the spread of known pathogens like influenza, RSV, SARS-CoV-2, and mycoplasma pneumoniae, a common bacterium known to cause mild illness in children. But after news outlets described hospitals crowded with children with pneumonia, the WHO said it wanted more information, per the New York Times.

The agency cited Tuesday reports of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China from groups including the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), which highlighted early reports of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. "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 Thursday. Its China office said Wednesday's request for detailed information, including laboratory results, was a "routine" check, per Reuters. Under WHO rules, China has 24 hours to respond to the request.

Officials didn't mention undiagnosed pneumonia at the Nov. 13 press conference but suggested a possible outbreak of mycoplasma pneumoniae. Outbreaks typically occur every three to seven years, officials said. Still, there could be other factors at play. For China, "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," Francois Balloux, director of the University College of London Genetics Institute, tells the BBC. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, adds this does not look like the appearance of a new virus. "The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure," he says. (More China stories.)

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