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China says 'no unusual pathogen detected' after WHO requests more information on pneumonia outbreak

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that it has been monitoring data from the Chinese surveillance system that showed a worrying increase in respiratory illnesses among children in northern China. However, scientists say that they don't signal the start of another global pandemic.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Beijing Published on: November 24, 2023 11:24 IST
China has previously refused to share details with the WHO
Image Source : AP China has previously refused to share details with the WHO on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday officially requested China for more information on a potential rise in respiratory illnesses and pneumonia clusters among children. However, China maintains that it did not detect any "unusual or novel diseases".

The UN health agency, in a statement, said that it has been monitoring data from the Chinese surveillance system that has been showing a worrying increase in respiratory illnesses among children in northern China. It formally requested data on undiagnosed pneumonia earlier this week and held a teleconference on November 23.

Scientists said that close monitoring was required in the situation but that the recent spike in respiratory illnesses did not signal the start of another global outbreak. This comes amid worries that undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illnesses lead to new flu strains and viruses that eventually trigger pandemics - like SARS and COVID-19.

No changes in disease presentation by China: WHO

"No changes in the disease presentation were reported by the Chinese health authorities. Chinese authorities advised that there has been no detection of any unusual or novel pathogens or unusual clinical presentations, including in Beijing and Liaoning, but only the aforementioned general increase in respiratory illnesses due to multiple known pathogens," the WHO said in a statement.

Chinese health officials further stated that the rise in respiratory illnesses has not resulted in patient loads exceeding hospital capacities. It said that enhanced outpatient and inpatient surveillance has been implemented for respiratory illnesses leading to an observed increase in the detection and reporting of the diseases.

Chinese authorities noted that an increase in respiratory illnesses is a result of lifting COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, which was common in other countries as well. Chinese data showed an increase in hospital admissions of children due to diseases including bacterial infections, influenza, common cold and more since October.

It is not often that the WHO publicly asks for more detailed information from any country, as such requests are typically made internally. However, several internal accounts in China claimed that the pneumonia outbreaks have swamped some hospitals in northern China, which raised concerns over another global pandemic like COVID-19, which almost shut down the world and damaged global economy.

Problems with China

Additionally, the WHO has previously faced a lack of cooperation from countries when new viruses have emerged -- particularly in China. Beijing had refused to share critical details about the COVID-19 with the global health body after the pandemic in 2019.

Prior to that, the WHO threatened to close its office in China after authorities asked doctors to hide patients after the SARS outbreak in 2002 when the scientists were visiting the country.

"Based on the available information, WHO recommends that people in China follow measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness, which include recommended vaccines against influenza, COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens as appropriate," the agency said.

"WHO is closely monitoring the situation and is in close contact with national authorities in China. WHO will continue to provide updates as warranted," it added.

(with inputs from agencies)

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