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Growing respiratory illnesses in Northern China prompt WHO request for data

Respiratory illnesses surge in northern China; WHO requests data. Beijing is silent. Seasonal factors cited, and preventive measures urged amid rising cases in children.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has formally requested additional data from China regarding the surge in respiratory illnesses affecting the northern part of the country.

Despite the request, Beijing has maintained a public silence on the matter as of Thursday (23 Nov).

Respiratory illnesses have reportedly been on the rise in northern China since mid-October compared to the same period in the preceding three years, as stated by the WHO.

“WHO has officially requested information from China to obtain detailed insights into the increased respiratory diseases and reports of pneumonia clusters in children,” the United Nations health agency announced on Wednesday (22 Nov).

Illustration: Influenza-like illness is spreading in Northern China. (Photo: shutterstock.com)

Last week, the National Health Commission (NHC) of Beijing attributed the spike in respiratory diseases to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the circulation of known pathogens, including influenza and common bacterial infections affecting children, including mycoplasma pneumonia.

The Chinese capital, Beijing, located in the northern region, is currently grappling with a cold snap, and state media predicts temperatures to plummet well below zero by Friday (24/ Nov).

“Beijing is entering a season of highly contagious respiratory diseases,” warned Wang Quanyi, Deputy Director and Chief Epidemiologist at the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Beijing News on Wednesday (22 Nov).

“Beijing is currently witnessing a trend of various pathogens coexisting,” he added.

The WHO has not disclosed China’s response to its request for more information, while China’s National Health Commission has not commented on the request by AFP as of Thursday (23 Nov). Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning directed journalists to “the competent Chinese authorities.”

On Thursday (23 Nov), at the Children’s Hospital of the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, AFP reporters observed groups of parents and children clad in winter attire. A parent named Zhang, escorting her nine-year-old son suffering from mycoplasma pneumonia – a pathogen that can cause sore throats, fatigue, and fever.

“There are really a lot of children who have caught it recently,” she said. “Of course, that worries me!” expressed concern about the increasing number of affected children. “Many children have recently contracted it, which naturally concerns me,” she remarked.

On Thursday (23 Nov), the National Health Commission of China published an interview with the state media agency Xinhua, advising parents on what to do amidst the rising cases. The interview acknowledged the long waiting times in major hospitals due to the influx of patients but made no reference to the WHO notice.

Li Meiling, aged 42, accompanied her eight-year-old daughter, who, according to her, was experiencing the same pneumonia. She acknowledged the prevalence of this illness among children of her daughter’s age but expressed minimal concern about the WHO statement.

Li stated, “It’s winter, so it’s normal that there are more cases of respiratory illnesses. It’s due to the season.”

Reports from the ProMED public health surveillance system on Tuesday (21 Nov), highlighted unexplained pneumonia clusters in children in northern China. The WHO has also sought additional information on recent trends in the circulation of known pathogens, including influenza, SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19 virus), RSV affecting infants, and Mycoplasma pneumoniae, as well as on excessive healthcare system density.

The WHO urged preventive measures such as vaccination, maintaining distance from sick individuals, and wearing masks.

This development follows the WHO’s criticism of Chinese authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic for a lack of transparency and cooperation.

The origins of COVID-19, more than three years after its first detection in Wuhan, remain a subject of heated debate. Earlier this year, WHO experts insisted that Beijing possesses crucial data that could shed light on the virus’s origins, emphasizing the moral imperative of sharing such information.

While a WHO-led team investigated China in early 2021, subsequent missions have not occurred, and WHO officials continue to request additional data. WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that uncovering the mystery could play a pivotal role in preventing future pandemics.

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