China’s Mystery Pneumonia Outbreak “Overwhelms” Hospitals


China, still reeling from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, now faces a new threat: a mysterious pneumonia outbreak sweeping through its educational institutions. With echoes of the harrowing scenes of the early stages of the Covid pandemic, this new development has triggered a surge in hospital admissions in the country.

Earlier this month, Chinese health officials from the National Health Commission (NHC) convened a press conference to address a recent surge in respiratory illnesses across the country.

Surge In Respiratory Diseases

Authorities in China have linked the upsurge in respiratory illnesses to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the reemergence of well-known pathogens, including influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, a widespread bacterial infection that typically affects younger children, respiratory syncytial virus, and the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Mycoplasma pneumoniae bacteria commonly cause mild infections of the respiratory system (the parts of the body involved in breathing). Sometimes these bacteria can cause more serious lung infections that require care in a hospital.”

Although undiagnosed pneumonia was not addressed at the NHC press conference, a closer examination of the transcript indicates that one speaker alluded to a perceptible increase in respiratory illnesses this year compared to three years ago.

Beijing is currently battling a relentless cold spell. State media reports predict that temperatures will nosedive, plunging far below freezing by Friday. The surge in respiratory infections has coincided with the city’s recent plunge into frigid temperatures, Wang Quanyi, deputy director and chief epidemiological expert at the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state media on Wednesday.

Beijing “is currently showing a trend of multiple pathogens coexisting”, he added, as quoted by news agency AFP.

Hospitals Overflowing 

Hospitals in Beijing and Liaoning are on the brink of collapse due to an overwhelming surge of sick children, reports claim. With the outbreak surging, school closures are also a possibility.

On Thursday, AFP reported a bustling scene at Beijing’s Capital Institute of Pediatrics’ Children’s Hospital, where parents and children, clad in winter apparel, navigated the crowded corridors.

On Tuesday, ProMED, a vigilant media and public disease surveillance system, flagged the presence of undiagnosed pneumonia clusters among children in northern China, prompting health authorities to investigate.

A ProMed alert issued in late December 2019 served as an early warning signal, alerting the medical community, scientific world, and high-ranking officials at the World Health Organization to the emergence of a novel virus, later identified as SARS-CoV-2 or coronavirus.

“With the outbreak of pneumonia in China, children’s hospitals in Beijing, Liaoning and other places were overwhelmed with sick children, and schools and classes were on the verge of suspension. Parents questioned whether the authorities were covering up the epidemic,” ProMed said in a statement.

“The situation in Liaoning Province is also serious. The lobby of Dalian Children’s Hospital is full of sick children receiving intravenous drips. There are also queues of patients at the traditional Chinese medicine hospitals and the central hospitals,” the statement read. 

What WHO Said 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has requested that China furnish more detailed data, while also issuing a public health advisory urging individuals to take steps to reduce their exposure risk.

“WHO has made an official request to China for detailed information on an increase in respiratory illnesses and reported clusters of pneumonia in children,” the UN health body said in a statement on Wednesday.

Over the course of the Covid pandemic, the WHO repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of openness and collaboration demonstrated by Chinese authorities in their handling of the pandemic.

(Inputs from agencies)