China responds to WHO fears of mystery child illness

Officials in Beijing have attributed an outbreak of respiratory ailments in children to commonly known pathogens

Chinese authorities have eased the World Health Organization’s concerns over a surge in childhood respiratory illnesses, saying the outbreak involves only commonly known pathogens and likely stems from the lifting of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Officials with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention responded to a WHO inquiry on Thursday, providing requested data on recent cases of pneumonia and other respiratory ailments in children. “Chinese authorities advised that there has been no detection of any unusual or novel pathogens or unusual clinical presentations” of respiratory illnesses, the WHO said in a statement.

The data confirmed an increase in hospital admissions of children sickened by mycoplasma pneumoniae, a common bacterial infection, as well as adenovirus, influenza and other common pathogens. “Some of these increases are earlier in the season than historically experienced, but not unexpected, given the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, as similarly experienced in other countries,” the WHO said.

Media reports have suggested that a surge in respiratory illness has swamped medical facilities in northern China, but Chinese officials told the WHO that the rise in patient traffic hasn’t exceeded hospital capacities. The authorities in Beijing also noted that they had expanded surveillance of respiratory ailments, including mycoplasma pneumoniae, which may have contributed to the increase in reported cases since mid-October.

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Reports of China’s outbreak of respiratory ailments in children raised fears over a possible mystery illness or an emerging pandemic. Covid-19 and SARS, for example, were both initially reported as unusual types of pneumonia. SARS broke out in southern China in 2002.

Dr. Paul Hunter, a medical professor at the UK’s University of East Anglia, said the fact that pulmonary nodules were seen in the chest X-rays of patients in the latest Chinese outbreak suggests “a bacterial, rather than a viral cause.” He added that few cases had been reported in adults, suggesting that the infections stemmed from common pathogens to which they had prior exposure.

“Overall, this does not sound to me like an epidemic due to a novel virus,” Hunter said in a statement. “If it was, I would expect to see many more infections in adults.” Because China was imposing strict Covid-19 restrictions in recent years, children built up relatively little immunity to the common pathogens that are currently spreading.

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