International experts are downplaying fears of a new pandemic amid a sharp rise in cases of child pneumonia and other respiratory infections in China and parts of the US and Europe.
Images from crowded waiting rooms suggest hospitals in China are under pressure, although Beijing officials are yet to concede their facilities have been overwhelmed by thousands of young pneumonia patients and have even reported a recent downward trend in cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) last month took the rare step of publicly demanding answers from China when it noticed the worrying spike and is currently monitoring the situation. Neighbouring nations remain on alert.
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In Europe, Demark, Ireland, France and Holland have also confirmed an increase in pneumonia cases, mainly in children, while health authorities in the US state of Ohio have issued an alert about the paediatric surge of infections.
Medical professionals say the uptick is somewhat expected given tough COVID restrictions including social distancing have been eased.
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“When conditions relaxed and people started behaving as they had previously then it was only a matter of time before the other diseases bounced back,” Jeremy Nicholson, pro vice chancellor of Murdoch University’s Health Futures Institute, told 7NEWS.com.au.
“Also, because people had been exposed to a reduced level of many viral pathogens for a couple of years the general immunity level dropped in the population, increasing susceptibility on their return.
“Note that flu viruses continued to evolve in the background so new strains have been emerging.”
Parents with their children wait at a crowded holding room of a children’s hospital in Beijing. Credit: Andy Wong/AP
UK expert Dr Gareth Nye argued in recent days that the increased prevalence of pneumonia could have been sparked by another COVID virus.
Nye, the programme lead for medical science and Chester Medical School, said that “crucially, this is not a new disease like COVID-19 was”.
“This is simply an increase in diseases we already know about, namely another COVID virus SARS-CoV2, influenza, the bacteria that causes pneumonia and respiratory syncytial virus,” Nye told the Daily Star.
The emergence of new flu strains or other viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness.
Both SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia.
A man carriers a child out of a crowded holding room of a children’s hospital in Beijing. Credit: Andy Wong/AP
Nye said the situation may change as more information surfaces, but at this stage “we have no need for major panic regarding this new surge in disease”.
“The missing out of crucial ‘infection spreading’ of the normal winter bugs during the COVID-restricted years, particularly in children who had social interactions through school disrupted, explains this as your ability to fight infections comes from seeing diseases before,” he said.
“Some children are simply meeting these illnesses for the first time and struggling to overcome them without assistance.”
Director of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mandy Cohen, told a recent House committee hearing “we do not believe (a spike in pneumonia cases) is a new or novel pathogen”.
“We believe this is all existing, meaning COVID, flu, RSV, mycoplasma (a bacteria that can cause pneumonia),” Cohen said.
Authorities in Ohio also say there is “zero evidence” connecting their surge in pneumonia cases to others, “either statewide, nationally or internationally”.
The WHO is seeking more information from China about reported clusters of pneumonia in children. Credit: AP
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs usually caused by bacteria or a virus.
The infection can lead to swelling and breathing difficulties when air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid.
It can range from a mild illness to a life-threatening condition.
There was a 33.5 per cent increase in the rate of influenza and pneumonia as an associated cause of death in Australians in 2022.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics said this was driven by COVID-19, which was an underlying cause of death in 27 per cent of the above deaths.
WHO has requested additional information on rise of illnesses and pneumonia in China. Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong
China’s health ministry has blamed the recent clusters on the lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and an overlap of common viruses.
“Because China is such a large and densely populated country, it is not surprising that viral infections can take off very quickly if not adequately controlled and if people are not taking precautions,” Professor Nicholson, who is also director of the Australian National Phenome Centre, said.
“The current surge is not terribly surprising. I don’t think that it is due to any new highly virulent (COVID) strain but it serves to remind us of the need for constant vigilance when dealing with this type of infectious disease.”
WHO recommends people keep up to date with vaccinations and ensure they stay away from people who are sick.
“WHO does not recommend any specific measures for travellers to China,” the organisation said.
Meanwhile, new COVID-19 vaccines targeting the current Omicron variant of the virus are available in community pharmacies throughout Australia.
The XBB 1.5 shots were approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in October and can be used as a primary immunisation dosage as well as a booster.
– With AAP