The World Health Organization has sought “detailed information” from China on the increase in respiratory illnesses and reported clusters of pneumonia in children.

The development bears an uncanny similarity to events in November/ December 2019, ahead of what later unravelled to become Covid-19, a pandemic the world had not seen in 100 years.

While details are awaited, public health voices said, India can be prepared by strengthening its surveillance and taking stock of its inventory.

India should look at its own data on Influenza like illnesses (ILI) and strengthen surveillance, besides keep a check on its stocks of PPEs (Personal protective equipment), oxygen etc in health centres, said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s former Chief Scientist. The genomic network should be used to identify the viruses causing ILI and  Severe Acute Respiratory Infections, said Swaminathan, Chairperson, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. “Without knowing the pathogen, (one) can’t make vaccine advisories,” she said, responding to whether existing vaccines and immunity would protect the local population.

Pointing to China’s zero-Covid policy, experts said the easing of these restrictions and winter contributed to increased infections. “Chinese authorities had attributed this increase to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the circulation of known pathogens such as influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae (a common bacterial infection which typically affects younger children), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19),” WHO said.

Authorities from China’s National Health Commission had reported this increase in respiratory diseases, at a press interaction earlier this month. They have stressed the need for enhanced disease surveillance in healthcare facilities and community settings, among other things.

Undiagnosed pneumonia

Referring to reports in ProMED about clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children in northern China, on November 21st, the WHO said, “It is unclear if these are associated with the overall increase in respiratory infections previously reported by Chinese authorities, or separate events.”

The UN health agency, on November22, sought additional epidemiologic and clinical information, as well as laboratory results from these reported clusters among children, through the International Health Regulations mechanism.

Systems in place

“We have also requested further information about recent trends in the circulation of known pathogens including influenza, SARS-CoV-2, RSV and mycoplasma pneumoniae, and the current burden on health care systems,” the WHO said, adding that it was also in contact with clinicians and scientists through existing technical partnerships and networks in China.

Since mid-October, northern China has reported an increase in influenza-like illness compared to the same period in the previous three years, the WHO said. “China has systems in place to capture information on trends in influenza, influenza-like illnesses, RSV, and SARS-CoV-2, and reports to platforms such as the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System,” it added.

While WHO seeks additional information, it recommend that people in China follow measures to reduce the risk of respiratory illness, which included recommended vaccination; keeping distance from people who are ill; staying home when ill; getting tested and medical care as needed; wearing masks as appropriate; ensuring good ventilation; and regular hand-washing.