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Bacterial Pneumonia Outbreak in Northern China: An Urgent Call for Enhanced Infection Prevention

Healthcare services in northern China are under immense strain due to a surge in pediatric admissions for a bacterial pneumonia condition. The disease follows a period of zero-COVID restrictions over the last three years. Radio Free Asia has been informed by doctors and healthcare specialists that Beijing and Tianjin are witnessing a major resurgence of severe respiratory infection.

According to data from the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Beijing Children’s Hospital has seen around 3,500 cases of respiratory infection at the start of this month. The outbreak is correlated with the circulation of Mycoplasma pneumoniae, an atypical bacterium known to cause lung infection. Scenes of crowded hospital waiting rooms have been emerging from both cities on social media, triggering alarm.

Most patients are children, with parents anxiously seeking urgent care for their offspring. However, healthcare services are swamped, leading to delays in care and long wait times. For instance, the Beijing Friendship Hospital reported a 24-hour delay in attending to emergency calls. This hospital has just a handful of doctors attending pediatric out-patient clinics and the emergency room.

Apart from Beijing Friendship Hospital, similar scenarios are evident at multiple healthcare units. For instance, both Beijing New Century Children’s Hospital and Tianjin’s Beichen Hospital report extensive appointment backlogs. Compounding the situation further, Tianjin Children’s Hospital has had to close its doors to new cases by the afternoon due to the influx of patients and limited doctor availability.

This health crisis comes at a time when China is experiencing a peak in seasonal respiratory disease. With the National Health Commission urging health officials to strengthen monitoring for respiratory illnesses including M. pneumoniae, COVID-19, and seasonal influenza. The growth of H3N2 influenza indicates an escalating challenge, as this strain is currently dominant in both northern and southern regions of China.

Previous reports elucidate that M. pneumoniae was a common cause of respiratory infections before the COVID-19 pandemic, with a worldwide incidence rate of 8.61% from 2017 to 2020. While non-pharmaceutical interventions for COVID-19 did manage to reduce the transmission of M. pneumoniae, medical experts caution that if M. pneumoniae infections resurge, they might globally affect a population that has not been exposed to this bacterium in recent years. This could result in an escalation of severe disease cases.

Amid the present situation, it is unclear if the severity of this outbreak is related to the mass infection and reinfection of China’s population with the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was observed post the lifting of nationwide zero-COVID restrictions in late 2022. The co-infection of COVID-19 and M. pneumoniae has been reported in some quarters, while others highlight weakened immunity from COVID-19 infection and reinfection, which may be contributing to the recent surge in pediatric respiratory infections.

Fears have been further stoked by health experts citing the larger-than-usual scale of this current outbreak caused by a strong inflammatory response in the lungs, thereby making it difficult for infected individuals to breathe. The recent mutation is believed to have made the infection more pathogenic, leading to an increased number of severe disease cases and hospitalizations. High levels of antibiotic resistance within the population further exacerbate matters, reducing the efficacy of oral antibiotics, leading to an increased demand for hospital visitations.

Amplifying these issues are the systemic challenges faced by medical services in China, including scarcity of medical personnel, supplies, and equipment, as well as issues related to corruption, and a hierarchical medical system that provides inconsistent care based on a person’s socio-economic status and location. Hence, the bacterial pneumonia outbreak in China highlights an urgent need for strengthening the infection prevention and control practices, enhancing surveillance, and ensuring equitable access to healthcare.


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