WHO presses China for data on wave of undiagnosed pneumonia cases

Children and their parents wait at an outpatient area at a hospital in Beijing on Thursday. (Photo: AFP)
Children and their parents wait at an outpatient area at a hospital in Beijing on Thursday. (Photo: AFP)

Summary

The WHO has asked China to provide more information on a pneumonia outbreak among children in northern parts of the country, in a rare public statement.

The World Health Organization said it has asked China to provide more information on an outbreak of pneumonia among children in northern parts of the country, an unusual public disclosure that revives questions about Beijing’s transparency on the spread of infectious diseases.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the WHO cited reports about “clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China," which prompted the United Nations agency to ask Beijing for “additional epidemiologic and clinical information, as well as laboratory results" related to the infections.

China’s health authorities and state media have in recent weeks reported a surge in cases of bacterial pneumonia and other influenza-like diseases, particularly among children. Chinese officials say the volume of such illnesses appeared higher than levels seen in the past three years, which they attributed, in part, to the lifting of strict Covid controls that had helped contain such respiratory ailments.

The WHO said it issued an official information request to China the day after reports about the undiagnosed pneumonia clusters emerged on Tuesday from the media and a global infectious-diseases reporting system known as ProMED. The agency said it wasn’t clear whether these reports were “associated with the overall increase in respiratory infections previously reported by Chinese authorities, or separate events."

Global health officials say the WHO routinely issues information requests to governments as part of its work assessing public-health risks, but it is relatively rare for the agency to publicly disclose those requests.

The WHO’s statement likely reflects concerns about Beijing’s patchy record in sharing public-health data during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the health officials.

“There’s no doubt that the WHO has been concerned with transparency and data communication" with regard to China, said one of the officials, who is based in Beijing and monitors public-health issues in China. “It also puts some pressure on the country that has been requested to cooperate."

China’s National Health Commission didn’t immediately respond to queries. In an interview published Thursday by the official Xinhua News Agency, the commission acknowledged that many children’s hospitals have been swamped by patients recently, and offered assurances that authorities are taking steps to improve access to treatment.

“Large hospitals are crowded, have long waiting times, and there’s a high risk of cross-infection," the commission said in the interview, and recommended that children with mild symptoms first seek help at primary healthcare facilities.

The WHO has in the past openly called on Beijing to be more transparent with public-health data.

In January, as China suffered a wave of Covid outbreaks that followed its lifting of pandemic controls, WHO officials questioned the accuracy of the official death toll, and the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged the Chinese government to deliver rapid and reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths.

In its Wednesday statement, the WHO cited a Nov. 13 news briefing arranged by China’s National Health Commission, where officials acknowledged an increase in cases of respiratory diseases, particularly mycoplasma pneumonia, a type of bacterial illness that commonly affects children.

Public hospitals and community health centers in Beijing have been swamped in recent weeks with parents seeking treatment for coughing children. Schools in the capital have suspended some classes that recorded a significant number of infections.

With Covid controls no longer in place, “these diseases have returned to their pre-epidemic behavior this year, and the incidence level has returned to normal compared with before the epidemic," Tong Zhaohui, director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Medicine, told the briefing.

Tong said that authorities around the world haven’t monitored cases of mycoplasma infections as closely in the past three years, and that such illnesses are expected to manifest in cyclical outbreaks every 3-7 years.

“Therefore, mycoplasma pneumonia in children is becoming prevalent this year," Tong said. “Everyone should pay attention and adopt personal protection measures, which is the key to prevention."

The WHO said its Wednesday request was made under the International Health Regulations, or IHR, an agreement that requires member states—including China—to report to the U.N. agency all developments that could become a public-health emergency of international concern. The World Health Assembly has been discussing proposed amendments to strengthen the IHR requirements, partly in response to concerns about shortcomings in the reporting process exposed by the Covid pandemic.

The WHO statement is also likely driven by global scrutiny—spurred by the Covid pandemic—on how it enforces reporting requirements under the IHR, said the Beijing-based health official.

In its Wednesday statement, the WHO said it also requested that China give more information about recent trends related to other respiratory diseases, including influenza and Covid-19, as well as “the current burden on health care systems."

While waiting for the requested information, the WHO said it recommended that people in China take steps to reduce the risk of contracting respiratory illnesses. These include getting recommended vaccinations, wearing masks where appropriate, and keeping distance from people who are sick.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com and Yoko Kubota at yoko.kubota@wsj.com

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