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    China Comes to Grips With Child Pneumonia Outbreak, but Flu Season Awaits

    A usually mild respiratory infection has strained medical resources around the country in recent months, which may worsen as China enters peak flu season.
    Nov 22, 2023#health

    China’s outbreak of mycoplasma pneumonia among children, which has placed pressure on hospitals since early September, has shown signs of abating in recent weeks. But authorities and experts warn of renewed strain on hospitals entering peak flu season as cross-infection risks increase. 

    On Friday evening, Sun Rui rushed her 3-year-old daughter, who had a fever of 39.2 degrees Celsius, to the Maternal and Child Health Care Hospital in Tongzhou District, Beijing. For the next 13 hours, she waited with “hundreds” of other parents for her sick child to be seen by a doctor, who eventually diagnosed her daughter with mycoplasma pneumonia.

    Also known as “walking pneumonia” due to its typical mildness, mycoplasma pneumonia is an infection of the respiratory system that does not require hospitalization in most cases. However, severe cases can cause high fevers and pulmonary complications.

    Sun’s experience is one of many across the country in recent months. Chen Qiaobin, deputy director of pediatrics at Fujian Provincial Hospital, a top-tier hospital in Fuzhou province, told Sixth Tone Tuesday that her department has received “four or five times” more patients in the last two months than is normal.

    “To cope with the surge in the number of children, we have added another half of the ward to facilitate treatment,” said Chen.

    “One-tenth of the patients in our department come from out of town … because bronchoscopies are unavailable in their hometown.”

    According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, bronchoscopies are not needed for mild cases of the infection. There have been no figures released about the number of children infected nationally.

    Liu Xia, a medical chief at Changde Maternal and Child Health Care Hospital, another top-tier hospital in the central Hunan province, told Sixth Tone this has been the most serious year for mycoplasma infections in the past “four to five” years at her hospital.

    In the capital city of Beijing, which boasts some of the best medical resources in the country, local media have reported hospital waiting rooms filled with parents and their sick children for several weeks.

    Beijing Friendship Hospital, one of the capital’s biggest hospitals, reported in early November that average daily outpatient and emergency visits had reached up to 1,800 people. The hospital saw a peak of 1,100 daily visits during the flu season in 2018, the Beijing News reported at the time. 

    In recent weeks, the number of infected children has fallen from its peak, with patient numbers dropping by around 20%-30% in hospitals in Shanghai, Hunan province, and Fujian province, according to various media reports.

    Shanghai outlet The Paper reported on Nov. 14 a 40% fall in patient numbers at the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center.

    Nonetheless, Liu warns that the respite for healthcare workers might only be temporary, as the country enters flu season, which typically starts in October and peaks in January in most parts of the country.

    “Influenza patients have begun coming to the hospital and there are already signs of cross-infection, which would make the situation even worse,” said Liu.

    On Monday, the chief epidemiologist at the Beijing CDC told the Beijing News that mycoplasma pneumonia is no longer the most common reason for visits to pediatric services in Beijing.

    In response, health commissions around the country have been urging residents to receive flu vaccines. However, influenza vaccination rates are low in China: just 3.34% and 2.46% during the 2020 and 2021 flu seasons, respectively.

    It remains unclear what is causing the significant uptick in mycoplasma pneumonia infections this year. In 2022, Chinese researchers suggested that the anti-epidemic measures such as mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic, lifted late last year, may have prevented the spread of the disease.

    Editor: Vincent Chow.

    (Header image: Parents and children wait at the outpatient area in the Maternal and Child Health Care Hospital, Tongzhou District, Beijing, Nov. 21, 2023. Courtesy of Sun)