Big spike in flu-like illness in China not a cause for concern

Experts are unsurprised by a large increase in respiratory illnesses among children in China.

The World Health Organization is concerned enough by the spike in illnesses like Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV),  the common cold,  (rhinovirus) and influenza to issue an official request for information to the world’s second most populated nation.

But Australian infectious disease experts say the rise is to be expected as China enters a winter free from COVID-19 restrictions.

They’ve also doused concerns of another pandemic.

“We are currently waiting for more information and updates, but there is no indication that this represents an outbreak of a novel unidentified virus – as reported by some outlets,” says Professor Ben Marais, director of the Sydney Infectious Diseases Institute.

“Due to the onset of winter, this is not unexpected and probably reflects the ‘immune deficit’ effect of strict COVID lockdown policies that prevented exposure to common viruses, and the acquisition of protective immunity, in young children.”

The WHO began monitoring the situation in China in mid-October. On 13 November, China’s National Health Commission confirmed the increase in childhood respiratory infections and attributed it to the end of COVID-19 restrictions and cold winter weather. As a result, the WHO recommended a range of activities for Chinese people to mitigate the risk of infection, including vaccines against influenza and COVID-19, social distancing and good hygiene practices.

“The statement released by WHO suggests the pressure on the health system from a surge in childhood pneumonia is related to mixed infections from RSV, influenza, mycoplasma, COVID and adenovirus, and not a novel pathogen,” says Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at UNSW’s Kirby Institute.

“It is close to winter, so expected that there would be an increase in respiratory pathogens.

“Our data […] suggests respiratory illnesses and pneumonia are higher this year compared to the same time last year. Beijing has very good surveillance, so would be in a better position to identify a novel pathogen than perhaps Wuhan. The dropping of COVID mitigations may well be contributing to this situation, but occurred almost a year ago now.”

Support cosmos today

Cosmos is a not-for-profit science newsroom that provides free access to thousands of stories, podcasts and videos every year. Help us keep it that way. Support our work today.

Please login to favourite this article.