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China demands more fever clinics amid pneumonia surge

November 26, 2023

A sharp rise in respiratory illnesses, particularly among children, has sparked fears of a new virus emerging from China. As cold and flu season begins, Chinese authorities insist no new pathogens have been detected.

Children and their parents wait at an outpatient area at a children hospital in Beijing on November 23, 2023
China is seeing a large increase in pneumonia cases, especially among childrenImage: Jade Gao/AFP

China on Sunday told local authorities to increase the number of medical clinics that can handle a surge in respiratory illnesses in the country.

The call comes after China's National Health Commission two weeks ago reported a large increase in pneumonia cases, mostly in children. 

The report triggered memories of the COVID-19 pandemic, with social media users fearing "a new virus coming from China," or a "new COVID."

Last week, the public disease surveillance system ProMED reported that some Chinese hospitals were "overwhelmed with sick children."

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

What did Chinese health officials advise?

"Efforts should be made to increase the number of relevant clinics and treatment areas, appropriately extend service hours and strengthen guarantees of drug supplies," National Health Commission spokesperson Mi Feng told a news conference on Sunday.

Mi said the sharp rise in acute respiratory illnesses was linked to the simultaneous circulation of several kinds of pathogens, most prominently influenza.

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.

China is facing its first full winter since it eased its strict zero-COVID policy that forced lockdowns and quarantines to quell the spread of the virus.

Easing of COVID curbs, lack of immunity blamed

Several experts have 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.

A guard sits near a barrier in Beijing during a COVID outbreak in November 2022
China locked down entire cities during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to widespread public outcry Image: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/Getty Images

China's cabinet, the State Council, warned on Friday of the risk of a rebound in COVID infections, alongside influenza and mycoplasma pneumonia infection — a common bacterial infection that typically affects young people, which has circulated since May.

"All localities should strengthen information reporting on infectious diseases to ensure information is reported in a timely and accurate manner," the State Council said in a statement.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on China to provide more information about the surge in cases.

By Friday, the Geneva-based health body no new or unusual pathogens had been found in the recent illnesses in China.

Beijing faced fierce criticism for the lack of transparency in reporting early in the COVID pandemic, as the virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

But later in the pandemic, China was praised for its prompt reporting about the spread of the virus.

mm/wmr (AFP, Reuters)