China: New respiratory illness outbreak sparks questions from WHO

The World Health Organisation has asked China for details about an outbreak of respiratory illnesses and reportedly undiagnosed pneumonia after local media shared footage of hospitals crowded with children.

Since mid-October, northern China has reported an increase in “influenza-like illnesses” compared with the same period in the previous three years, according to WHO.

Clusters of undiagnosed childhood pneumonia cases have also been reported in the north of the country, the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday, though it’s unclear whether these are related to the respiratory infections.

The WHO’s questions come Chinese media in some cities, including Xian in the country’s northwest, posted videos of hospitals crowded with parents and children waiting to be seen.

Some social media users have also posted photos of children doing homework while receiving intravenous drips in hospital.

The media reports suggest “a widespread outbreak of an undiagnosed respiratory illness in several areas in China”, according to the International Society for Infectious Diseases’ Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED).

“It is not at all clear when this outbreak started, as it would be unusual for so many children to be affected so quickly,” the body said, but reports of illness predominantly showing up in children suggest “some exposure at the schools”.

China maintained a policy known as Covid zero, marked by strict lockdowns and quarantines, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing, for nearly two years before abandoning it last December.

Chinese authorities attributed the spike in illnesses to the lifting of these hard-line restrictions, which prevented the spread of other illnesses as well as Covid, in addition to an autumn cold snap and the circulation of known pathogens including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and mycoplasma pneumonia.

As temperatures plummeted in the Chinese capital Beijing, located in the north of the country, the city “entered a high incidence season of respiratory infectious diseases”, Wang Quanyi, deputy director and chief epidemiological expert at the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state media on Wednesday.

The city “is currently showing a trend of multiple pathogens coexisting”, he added.

China was asked by the WHO to provide additional information about the reported outbreaks, as well as lab results from the affected children.

The organisation also asked for information about whether the outbreaks had burdened the Chinese health system, and if so, to what extent.

The WHO’s office in China on Thursday described the requests as a “routine” check. Under WHO rules, China must respond within 24 hours.

In the meantime, the WHO urged residents to take standard measures to limit the spread of respiratory illnesses, including vaccination, mask-wearing, regular handwashing, keeping distance from sick people and staying at home when ill.

Originally published as Mysterious new respiratory illness outbreak in China catches World Health Organisation’s attention