Chinese officials say they have not detected any “unusual or novel diseases”, the World Health Organisation reports, after an official request by the UN health agency for information about a spike in respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia in children.
WHO cited unspecified media reports and a global infectious disease monitoring service as reporting clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China and formally requested more details this week.
Outside scientists said the situation warranted close monitoring but were not convinced that the spike in respiratory illnesses signalled the start of a new global outbreak.
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The emergence of new flu strains or other viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness.
SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia.
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WHO noted that authorities at China’s National Health Commission on November 13 reported an increase in respiratory diseases, which they said was due to the lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
Other countries also saw a jump in respiratory diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, when pandemic restrictions ended.
WHO said media reports about a week later reported clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China.
The UN agency said it held a teleconference with Chinese health officials on Thursday, during which the data it requested was provided.
It showed an increase in hospital admissions of children due to diseases including bacterial infection, RSV, influenza and common cold viruses since October.
“No changes in the disease presentation were reported by the Chinese health authorities,” WHO said.
Lifted COVID restrictions in China likely reduced children’s immunity to common bugs, experts say. Credit: EPA
Chinese officials said the spike in patients had not overloaded the country’s hospitals.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, doubted the wave of infections was sparked by a new disease, saying “I would expect to see many more infections in adults”.
“The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure,” he said.
Francois Balloux of University College London said China was probably experiencing a significant wave of childhood infections because this was the first winter since restrictions were lifted, which is likely to have reduced children’s immunity to common bugs.
WHO said northern China had reported a jump in influenza-like illnesses since mid-October compared with the previous three years.
It’s rare for the UN health agency to publicly ask for more detailed information from countries, as such requests are typically made internally.