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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

‘Keep masks on, vaccinate amid China respiratory illness outbreak’

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An expert on infectious diseases said Sunday that people should wear masks and keep their vaccinations up to date amid reports of a surge in respiratory illnesses in China.

“Let’s not panic and conclude that this is another COVID or a novel pathogen we know nothing about,” said Dr. Rontgene Solante, president of the Philippine College of Physicians and an expert on infectious diseases.

“But it is also important while monitoring the situation that we take precautions because we know how rapidly illnesses can travel from one country to another because there are no restrictions,” he added, speaking in a mix of English and Filipino to TeleRadyo.

Solante said that vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly should take extra precautions as they could be easily infected with respiratory illnesses.

Aside from COVID-19 vaccines, Solante also urged the public to get flu shots, saying it is ideal to receive flu vaccination from March to May to have protection against the illness until December to January the following year.

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Cases of respiratory illnesses have been surging in northern China, particularly among children, sparking speculation online of a new pandemic threat four years after COVID-19 first emerged in the country.

However, Chinese health authorities have said the rising infections are a mix of already known viruses and are linked to the country’s first full cold season after strict COVID restrictions were lifted last December.

And while emphasizing that the full situation remains unclear, experts say there is little to suggest the cases were caused by a new virus.

What and where?

On Nov. 13, China’s National Health Commission reported a surge in respiratory illnesses, mostly in children.

Chinese authorities have attributed the rising cases to the end of COVID restrictions, the arrival of the cold season, and the circulation of known pathogens including influenza, mycoplasma pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 —the virus that causes COVID.

On Monday, the public disease surveillance system ProMED—which once issued an early warning about mysterious pneumonia cases that turned out to be COVID — reported that some Chinese hospitals were “overwhelmed with sick children” due to a pneumonia outbreak.

This outbreak was said to be mainly in the capital Beijing, but also in the northeastern Liaoning province and other areas in China.

Symptoms included fever, lung inflammation without a cough, and pulmonary nodules—lumps on lungs that are usually the result of a past infection. No deaths have been reported.

At a children’s hospital in Beijing on Thursday, several parents said their children had mycoplasma pneumonia, which is a common cause of pneumonia in children that is readily treated with antibiotics.

Memories triggered

The report triggered memories of the pandemic, with social media users fearing “a new virus coming from China,” or a “new COVID.” Macon Ramos-Araneta with AFP (See full story online at

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization — which repeatedly criticized Beijing for a lack of transparency throughout the COVID pandemic — requested more information from China about children suffering from “undiagnosed pneumonia.”

Beijing responded on Thursday, saying “there has been no detection of any unusual or novel pathogens,” according to a WHO statement.

The WHO has requested more information, noting that China closely monitors trends in viruses such as the flu, RSV, and SARS-CoV-2.

China also started monitoring mycoplasma pneumonia for the first time in mid-October, the WHO added.

The WHO said that “there is limited detailed information available to fully characterize the overall risk of these reported cases of respiratory illness in children.”

However an increase in such illnesses was to be expected with the arrival of winter, it added.

Several experts pointed to winter’s arrival, the end of COVID restrictions, and a lack of prior immunity in children as likely being behind the surging infections.

“Since China experienced a far longer and harsher lockdown than essentially any other country on Earth, it was anticipated that those ‘lockdown exit’ waves could be substantial in China,” said Francois Balloux of University College London.

Unless there is new evidence suggesting otherwise, “there is no reason to suspect the emergence of a novel pathogen,” he added.

Paul Hunter of the UK’s University of East Anglia emphasized that “at present there is too little information to make a definitive diagnosis.”

However “overall, this does not sound to me like an epidemic due to a novel virus,” he added.

“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.”

The WHO recommended that people in the affected areas follow the normal rules to avoid respiratory illnesses.

These include getting vaccinated, isolating if symptoms emerge, and getting tested or wearing masks if necessary.

Based on the current information, the WHO advised against any travel restrictions involving China. With AFP

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