Is this some new disease? Who is affected? Why the outbreak now? Most importantly, do you need to be worried?
Evoking feelings of déjà vu among people across the world, China is seeing a spike in respiratory illnesses as it enters its first full winter season after lifting Covid-19 restrictions last December.
Here is what we know about the situation so far.
1. So, what exactly is happening?
There has been a spike in reported incidents of respiratory illnesses in China. First reported by China’s National Health Commission on November 13 in a press conference, the illnesses have caused a surge in hospitalisations, with many hospitals warning of long waits. The situation came into the spotlight this week when the WHO asked China for more information, citing a report by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) on clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children.
2. Where is this spike occurring?
Infections have proliferated across China’s north-eastern regions, with Beijing and Liaoning, 800 km apart, being two major hubs. “One major hospital in Beijing has reported that on average every day, they are seeing about 1,200 patients enter their emergency room,” Al Jazeera reported on Thursday.
3. Who have been most affected by the outbreak?
Cases among children are especially high, with children making up a large proportion of those hospitalised. Schools in Beijing are reporting high levels of absenteeism, even dismissing entire classes for at least a week if some students are ill.
Some experts have noted that the high incidence in children is actually a positive, indicating that older individuals have some immunity to the pathogens running rampant. This would most likely mean that existing vaccines are likely to help protect individuals from disease. However, apart from children, the elderly and pregnant women may also be vulnerable.
4. Is this the outbreak of a new disease, like Covid-19 a few years back?
No, not as far as we know yet. Chinese authorities have attributed the increase in incidence of respiratory illnesses to the circulation of known pathogens such as influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). So far, no new illness has been identified, although the World Health Organization has asked China for more disease data.
According to WHO, mycoplasma pneumoniae, a common bacterial infection which typically affects younger children, is likely to be what is affecting most of the patients under 18.
5. Why this outbreak now?
Chinese authorities, and many health experts elsewhere, have attributed the outbreak to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, similar to “lockdown exit waves” seen in other countries. China may be repaying an “immunity debt” after their strict and lengthy lockdown, “which must have drastically reduced the circulation of respiratory bugs and hence decreased immunity to endemic bugs”, Francois Belloux, director of University College London’s Genetic Institute, wrote on Twitter.
Moreover, the onset of winter is a likely culprit as well. Chinese authorities have said that temperatures will further plummet this weekend onwards.
6. How are authorities dealing with the outbreak?
While they have stopped short of reintroducing full-blown Covid-19-era restrictions, Chinese authorities have asked the public to step up vigilance, and take preemptive measures. The WHO, in a statement, made the following recommendations: “keeping distance from people who are ill; staying home when ill; getting tested and medical care as needed; wearing masks as appropriate; ensuring good ventilation; and regular hand-washing.”