'Disturbingly similar' message out of China over mystery illness overwhelming hospitals

Chinese media are reporting school closures and some teachers being infected by the respiratory illness mainly impacting children.

A mystery new respiratory illness surging in China has seen hospitals swamped and prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to request more information from the government about the outbreak.

Scientists around the world say the situation warrants close monitoring but urge against an overreaction before more information is gathered. Chinese officials insist they have not detected any "unusual or novel diseases" in the country.

What you need to know

  • China attributes the increase in respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia in children to the lifting of pandemic restrictions and circulation of known pathogens such as influenza and the virus that causes Covid.

  • International concerns were first sparked on Tuesday when monitoring service ProMED, part of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, sent an alert that echoed their first notice on what would eventually become Covid-19.
    - Alert sent on Dec. 30 2019: "Undiagnosed pneumonia - China (Hubei)."
    - Alert sent on Nov. 21 2023: "Undiagnosed pneumonia - China (Beijing, Liaoning)."

  • The WHO requested China provide additional epidemiologic information and laboratory results from the reported outbreaks, as well as data about the burden on healthcare systems.

Children and their parents wait at an outpatient area at a children hospital in Beijing on November 23, 2023.
The average number of patients in the internal medicine department at Beijing Children’s Hospital is topping 7,000 per day. Source: Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images
  • Chinese health officials provided the information on Thursday, showing an increase in hospital admissions since October.

  • Some hospitals are so "overwhelmed" that parents are being told to take children with less severe symptoms to other facilities. Local media are reporting some school closures and teachers being infected.

Read more: Find out more about WHO's request to China

🤔 Should I be worried?

The reports “are disturbingly similar to the ones that came out of Wuhan in late 2019”, epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman told Yahoo News Australia on Friday, however he also said it’s a bit too early to draw any conclusions.

"I think they are acutely aware of the mistakes they made with the Covid-19 outbreak, and want to be seen as pro-active," he said.

"Until we have more information from China and WHO, it is difficult to know whether this will be a risk to other countries [like Australia]," he continued. "Hopefully, our health authorities are keeping a careful eye on what is happening. Australia is establishing its own CDC [Centre for Disease Control] – it would be nice to know what progress has been made."

Professor Esterman said this is the first winter since China removed Covid public health measures, which "might explain some of the increased incidence".

Read more: China's mystery respiratory illness: What we know so far

A child wears a face mask after dismissal from a school in Beijing, China, 23 November 2023.
Chinese authorities have attributed the increase to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and the circulation of known pathogens such as influenza. Source: EPA via Getty Images

🗣️ What they said

A Beijing citizen, who ProMed identified as Mr W: "Many, many are hospitalised. They don't cough and have no symptoms. They just have a high temperature (fever) and many develop pulmonary nodules."

Virologist Tom Peacock from Imperial College London, who has tracked new coronavirus variants: "I suspect it may end up being something more mundane or a combination of things — say Covid, flu, RSV — but hopefully we'll know more soon."

Children receive a drip on the stairs at a children hospital in Beijing on November 23, 2023.
Local media reports some schools have closed after teachers became infected. Source: Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

Brian McCloskey, a public health expert who also advised WHO on the pandemic: "What we are seeing is WHO's International Health Regulations system in action. I am not going to push the pandemic panic button on the basis of what we know so far, but I will be very keen to see the response to WHO from China and see the WHO's assessment following that."

Dr Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia: "At present there is too little information to make a definitive diagnosis of what is causing this epidemic in China. The presence of pulmonary nodules tend to suggest a bacterial rather than a viral cause. Overall, this does not sound to me like an epidemic due to a novel virus. If it was, I would expect to see many more infections in adults. The few infections reported in adults suggest existing immunity from a prior exposure."

Read more: Don't press 'pandemic panic button' scientists caution on China reports

💬 Conversation starter

While the WHO always requests information from countries when undiagnosed or unknown diseases are reported, it does not always put out a press release, making Wednesday's alert significant.

Both the WHO and China have faced questions over their transparency during the early days of Covid. WHO has also since criticised China for withholding data about infections and deaths when it lifted its "zero-Covid" measures, as well as about the origins of the pandemic.

The organisation threatened to close its office in China 21 years ago after Beijing officials told doctors to hide patients during a SARS outbreak in the country's south. Some were driven around in ambulances while WHO scientists visited the country.

With AP and Reuters

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