More than three years have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic, and China was just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. However, the country has yet again been hit by a mysterious pneumonia outbreak among children, leading to immense panic and concern, with many fearing another possible pandemic situation. According to reports, the nation has been reporting thousands of cases of “influenza-like illness” since mid-October.
On November 13, Chinese health officials from the National Health Commission raised alarms around an increase in respiratory illnesses across the country during a press conference, according to Reuters.
What Do We Know So Far?
Earlier this week, the Beijing children’s hospital reported an average of 7,000 patients per day, surpassing the hospital's capacity, said the state-run China National Radio.
Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), the largest publicly available surveillance system that monitors infectious disease outbreaks worldwide, issued a public notification on Tuesday, November 21, reporting “undiagnosed pneumonia” in children in Beijing and Liaoning.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) asked China to release further information on the outbreak, including “additional epidemiologic and clinical information, as well as laboratory results from these reported clusters among children."
“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. The WHO is also in contact with clinicians and scientists through our existing technical partnerships and networks in China,” the WHO said.
“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,” WHO said.
Reportedly, Chinese health authorities have attributed the increase in respiratory illnesses to the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions and the spread of pathogens, including influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and SARs-CoV-2 virus.
What Are The Symptoms?
According to a report by Taiwanese news website FTV News, high fever and inflammation of the lungs with no cough are some of the symptoms noted in children.
“The situation in Liaoning province is also serious. The lobby of Dalian Children’s Hospital is full of sick children receiving intravenous drips. There are also queues of patients at the traditional Chinese medicine hospitals and the central hospitals,” it added.
Wei, a Beijing citizen, told FTV News, “Many, many are hospitalised... They don’t cough and have no symptoms. They just have a high temperature (fever), and many develop pulmonary nodules.”
“You are not allowed to report to school. If you have symptoms such as fever, cold, or cough and then you are hospitalised, you can ask for leave,” he added.
What Could Be Causing The Illness?
Dr Tushar Tayal, Consultant- Internal Medicine, CK Birla Hospital, Gurugram, said, “There are numerous viruses such as Adenovirus, influenza virus, enterovirus, rhinovirus, RSV and Covid virus, which can cause such symptoms. Important thing to be noted is that all viral infections do not necessarily cause the full spectrum of symptoms which we associate with common cold and flu.”
He added, “We can assume that the etiological agent causing infection in Chinese children is a virus or some atypical bacteria. However, proper research will be needed to find out the culprit organism so that it can be contained and effective strategies can be implemented.”
Should India Be Worried?
According to Dr Tayal, “It is too early to say whether the current infection can become a pandemic or not or if this infection will spread to India. The WHO is already involved and is looking into the matter and has asked the Chinese government to look into the matter.”
Dr Anjali R Nath, Consultant Pulmonologist, SPARSH Hospital, Bengaluru, said, “Various factors, including viral mutations or environmental conditions, can contribute to the new pneumonia outbreak in China. Consultation with experts and thorough investigation are crucial to determining the cause.”
According to the doctor, India should take proactive measures to protect children by enhancing surveillance, encouraging vaccination, and implementing public health awareness campaigns.
“Strengthening healthcare infrastructure, especially in rural areas, can improve early detection and treatment. Collaborating with international health organisations for information exchange and expertise can also aid preparedness,” she added.
Dr Nath also recommended educating the public on preventive measures such as proper hygiene, mask-wearing, and social distancing, as they remain vital in controlling the spread of respiratory illnesses, particularly in children.