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Pneumonia outbreak is nothing unusual, says expert allaying fears

IANS Dec 13, 2023

There is nothing usual about cases of mycoplasma pneumonia reported by various countries, beginning in China, and subsequently, the Netherlands, Denmark and two states in the US said a health expert on Dec 12, allaying fears.

It all began with several social media posts claiming a new and major pneumonia outbreak with no known cause among Chinese children. It was also reported by ProMED Mail, the online reporting system of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, which said that the outbreak, causing symptoms such as high fever, and some developing pulmonary nodules is overwhelming paediatric hospitals in the country.

Upon request from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Chinese officials informed that no new pathogens were detected in the outbreak, and instead, the illnesses were caused by known seasonal viruses such as the flu and RSV, along with the bacteria Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

But experts allayed fears, attributing the rising infections to the winter season as well as lack of immunity due to COVID measures.

“China, especially the northern parts of that country, is going through winter. So from October onwards, the winter respiratory infections go up in China every year, and there is nothing unusual about that,” Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, co-chairman of the National Indian Medical Association COVID Task Force, told IANS.

Dr Jayadevan noted that the past three years had extraordinary levels of protective measures, mainly non-pharmaceutical measures, such as masks, social distancing and tracking and quarantine due to COVID.

This not only kept COVID virus away, but other viruses were also “muted and they did not circulate”. While this did not really affect adults as they had already been exposed to multiple infections before the pandemic, children presented to be a “susceptible population”, the doctor said.

"From January 2023 onwards, China's restrictions ended, and it has been back to normal in terms of social interaction -- children are going to school, they're attending birthday parties. So with all the mingling going on, these viruses struck a jackpot: they suddenly found a huge number of hosts that had no prior immune exposure. About 30 to 40 million children were available for the virus. So this was 100 per cent expected, there's nothing unusual about that. This is the mechanism of a large number of children getting infected at once," Dr Jayadevan explained.

“There’s no strange, mysterious virus spreading. With the information we have, this doesn't have any potential to spread and become another pandemic,” said the Kochi-based gastroenterologist.

Further, he noted that “Mycoplasma has a habit of reemerging every three to four years or so, a cyclical pattern. Bottom line is this might just be a natural mycoplasma surge and of course, it's a bacterial infection,” he added.

"Mycoplasma is a bacteria that causes respiratory infection. A distinct feature is that the child feels relatively well in spite of an abnormal chest x-ray. Easily treated with antibiotics, it is known to appear every few years with intervals ranging from 4 to 7 years. Importantly, there is no report of ICUs being filled or of real hospitalisation in terms of hospital rooms getting filled in China, most of the rush is in the outpatient section," the doctor said.

Following the reports from China, Netherlands, Denmark and Ohio as well as Massachusetts in the US reported a similar uptick in pneumonia cases among children. While the cases are not part of the global spread and are reported separately, these have raised concerns as the world largely is still crawling back from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These western nations are going through winter, and winter surges are part of normal life there. And the same susceptibility factors apply there, except these are not very densely populated countries. These countries lifted restrictions much earlier than China, hence the proportion of susceptible children is small,” Dr Jayadevan said.

On the chances of such an infection in India, Dr Jayadevan said India can see “normal winter surges” but not such severe cases as there is no “susceptible population” in the country.

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