CHINA — The World Health Organization (WHO) has initiated a routine check, seeking detailed information from Chinese authorities regarding a recent surge in respiratory illnesses and reported clusters of pneumonia in children.
This move reflects a growing concern about transparency in reporting, echoing past questions about the early Covid-19 cases that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Chinese health officials from the National Health Commission held a press conference on November 13, reporting a notable increase in the incidence of respiratory diseases.
They attributed this rise to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and the circulation of known pathogens, including influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the virus causing Covid-19.
This situation raises poignant questions about the transparency of reporting, an issue that both China and the WHO have grappled with in the aftermath of the initial Covid-19 outbreak.
On Wednesday, the WHO, citing reports from groups like the Programme for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), disclosed clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in north China.
The global agency aims to share available information in response to numerous media queries, emphasizing the need for transparency in addressing potential public health threats.
The ProMED alert that triggered this scrutiny was based on a report from FTV News in Taiwan, underscoring the interconnectedness of global health surveillance networks.
Notably, undiagnosed pneumonia wasn’t mentioned at the Chinese press conference last week, but there was a general acknowledgment of an increase in respiratory illnesses compared to three years ago.
However, it remains unclear whether these clusters are linked to the overall surge in respiratory infections previously reported by Chinese authorities or represent separate incidents.
In response, the WHO has formally requested additional epidemiologic and clinical information, along with laboratory results from the reported outbreaks among children.
This request is made through the International Health Regulations mechanism, which mandates that China responds within 24 hours.
Additionally, the WHO has sought further information about trends in the circulation of known pathogens and their impact on healthcare systems.
The global health agency is actively engaged with clinicians and scientists through existing technical partnerships and networks in China to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the situation.
Despite the WHO characterizing the request as “routine,” the decision to issue a statement on China is significant.
This surge in respiratory illnesses coincides with China’s first full winter season since the lifting of strict Covid-19 restrictions in December.
Many other countries experienced similar increases in respiratory diseases after easing pandemic measures, suggesting a seasonal component to the rise.
Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, notes that this surge might be a combination of chance and a “bit of ‘immunity debt'” from the lesser winter surges in the last three years.
While China’s National Health Commission has not responded to requests for comment, recent reports from northern China indicate a surge in influenza-like illness since mid-October compared to the previous three years.
Videos from cities like Xian in the northwest depict crowded hospitals with parents and children awaiting checks. Social media posts include images of children doing homework while receiving intravenous drips in hospitals.
The WHO, while seeking additional information, recommends that people in China adhere to measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness.
These measures include vaccination, maintaining distance from sick individuals, staying at home when ill, regular testing, seeking medical care as needed, appropriate mask usage, ensuring good ventilation, and regular hand-washing.