Respiratory Illness Surge in Northern China: Causes and Concerns
Written by Sanjay Kumar
Amid growing concerns over a sudden surge in respiratory illnesses, China’s health ministry clarified on Sunday (November 26) that no new virus is responsible for the increase. The World Health Organization (WHO) had raised alarms after China reported “clusters of pneumonia in children,” prompting a closer examination of the situation.
Overlap of Common Viruses
The National Health Commission of China addressed the issue, stating that the rise in acute respiratory diseases is attributed to the overlap of common viruses. These include the influenza virus, rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus, and bacterial infections like mycoplasma pneumoniae. The WHO, after reviewing the data provided by Chinese health officials, acknowledged the absence of any unusual or novel pathogens.
Despite the increased hospital admissions of children due to various diseases since October, experts and health authorities maintain that there is little evidence to suggest the involvement of a new virus.
Lifting COVID Lockdown and Cold Season
China has linked the spike in infections to the arrival of the first full cold season after the lifting of strict COVID-19 restrictions in December of the previous year. The WHO echoed this sentiment, attributing the surge to the relaxation of COVID-19 measures and the circulation of known pathogens, including influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, RSV, and SARS-CoV-2.
Experts believe that the combination of the cold season, the end of COVID restrictions, and a potential lack of prior immunity in children may be contributing factors to the rise in respiratory infections. Prolonged lockdowns in China could have left residents with insufficient natural immunity against these viruses
Expert Opinions and Age-specific Pathogens
Several experts suggest that the extended lockdown in China may result in substantial waves of infections upon exit, particularly among children who have not developed sufficient immunity. Age-specific pathogens prevalent in respiratory infectious diseases vary, with different viruses affecting distinct age groups.
- 0-4 years: Influenza virus, rhinovirus
- 5-14 years: Influenza virus, mycoplasma pneumonia, adenovirus
- 15-59 years: Influenza virus, rhinovirus, coronavirus
- Aged 60 and above: Influenza virus, human metapneumovirus, coronavirus
Concerns and Assessing the Risk
As reports of rising infections trigger memories of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts emphasize that the current situation does not seem indicative of an epidemic caused by a novel virus. The limited number of infections in adults suggests existing immunity from prior exposures.
While the WHO acknowledges the concern, there is insufficient information at present to assess the actual risk of these reported respiratory illnesses in children. Both Chinese authorities and the WHO have faced accusations of lack of transparency in previous reports on the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the need for thorough investigation and open communication in addressing public health issues.
The health authorities in China have urged the public to seek medical attention for children with less severe symptoms at clinics and other facilities as they work to manage the outbreaks that have overwhelmed some hospitals in northern China, including Beijing.
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