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Seasonal Bug or New Epidemic? Chinese Hospitals Overwhelmed by Children with Mysterious Undiagnosed Respiratory Illness

Chinese Hospitals Overwhelmed by Kids With Respiratory Illnesses
Source: Unsplash

Chinese officials claim that the culprits are the usual seasonal bugs.

Nov. 27 2023, Published 1:01 p.m. ET

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Footage of overcrowded hospitals in China has surfaced along with reports of a surge in respiratory illnesses among children. reported that despite these sightings, Chinese officials have telegraphed that there is no reason for concern and that common seasonal bugs are to blame.

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The International Society for Infectious Diseases recently released a report detailing the pneumonia outbreak and suggesting a "widespread outbreak of an undiagnosed respiratory illness in several areas in China."

Chinese news outlet FTV News reported that parents have questioned whether authorities are covering up an epidemic.

The pictures that originated from Chinese medics in Beijing and Liaoning 500 miles to the capital’s northeast, depict congested waiting rooms, while reports tell of long waits in emergency departments, and queues of up to 700 people, per News18, and Indian news outlet.

Despite these accounts, Chinese officials assert that the healthcare system is coping with the surge in demand and conveyed this to the World Health Organization (WHO) in a telephonic conference on Nov. 23.

The WHO recounted its conversation with the Asian country on its website, saying: “Chinese authorities advised that there has been no detection of any unusual or novel pathogens or unusual clinical presentations, including in Beijing and Liaoning, but only the aforementioned general increase in respiratory illnesses due to multiple known pathogens.”

“They further stated that the rise in respiratory illness has not resulted in patient loads exceeding hospital capacities,” the webpage noted.

In statements to the Daily Mail, two external experts noted that China’s explanations were reassuring, but not without saying that the situation should be monitored.

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia in the UK, said: “At present, it looks like this is not a new virus but rather a bad year for a number of different respiratory infections, influenza, RSV (common cold-like infection) and mycoplasma.”

“Often what puts people into hospital is not the initial infection but a secondary bacterial pneumonia, usually pneumococcal, which develops after the acute illness and at a time when it is no longer possible to diagnose the initial influenza,” he explained.

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Professor Lawrence Young, from the UK University of Warwick, also weighed in, saying: “China’s response to WHO’s concerns about the upsurge in respiratory illnesses in children in northern China provides some reassurance that this is not due to a novel pathogen but is related to transmission of existing respiratory infections.”

He also noted that any alarm caused by the news was not unfounded: “It’s natural for us to be suspicious given concerns about the transparency of information from China. We need to keep an eye on the surveillance data from China but it looks like these infections are attributable to known circulating pathogens such as flu, RSV, Covid, and Mycoplasma pneumoniae.”

The heightened rates of infections triggered the same disease monitoring mechanism (ProMed) that sounded the COVID alarm in late 2019, per the WHO.

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But notably, the resurgence of respiratory infections in China is similar to patterns observed worldwide as countries lifted lockdown measures.

The UK and US also experienced a spike in common winter infections like flu and RSV as restrictions were eased, per the Daily Mail, while BMC Public Health noted the same trend in Egypt, for example.

This can be attributed to a drop in herd immunity against these infections during the lockdown, leaving people more susceptible when the measures were lifted, per the Chinese authority's explanation for their current situation.


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