What to know about mycoplasma bacteria giving children pneumonia in China, amid a respiratory illness outbreak

What to know about mycoplasma bacteria giving children pneumonia in China, amid a respiratory illness outbreak
  • Cases of flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19 have surged among children in northern China.

  • Chinese authorities say that pathogens such as mycoplasma are to blame.

  • Mycoplasma is a bacteria that can cause a relatively mild condition known as walking pneumonia.

Cases of respiratory illness among children in northern China have surged in recent weeks. Common pathogens, which can cause illnesses such as "walking" pneumonia, are understood to be the cause.

Business Insider previously reported that one Beijing hospital said on Friday that its pediatrics unit was seeing 550 to 650 visits per day, which is 30 to 50% more than the same period in previous years. Another hospital in nearby Tianjian claimed that more than 13,171 patients had been admitted to its two campuses in 24 hours, with its director saying its staff were overwhelmed.

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that it has been monitoring an increase in respiratory illness among children in northern China, shown in Chinese surveillance systems, since mid-October. It said the country's health authorities announced a spike in respiratory diseases, mostly in children, on November 13. The WHO said it was unclear if the reports of pneumonia in children were linked to the overall increase in respiratory illness, or separate events.

According to the WHO, Chinese authorities attributed the surge in cases to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the majority of which ended in December 2022, and the circulation of known pathogens such as influenza, mycoplasma pneumoniae, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID).

The uptick in respiratory illness cases has sparked fears of a new pandemic that experts have tried to allay. A group of biosecurity experts from UNSW Sydney, Australia, wrote in The Conversation on Monday that they are confident we are not dealing with a new virus as several causes for the surge have already been identified.

"There is no indication that the current situation in China is a new pandemic, but we should always identify and pay attention to undiagnosed pneumonia clusters. Early warning systems give us the best chance of preventing the next pandemic," they wrote.

People infected with mycoplasma may not realize they have pneumonia

Mycoplasma, probably the least known of the pathogens linked to the outbreak, is a type of bacteria that can cause mild respiratory infections that most people recover from without antibiotics. However, it can sometimes cause more serious lung infections that can lead to hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria is also a cause of a type of pneumonia known as atypical or "walking" pneumonia.

Pneumonia causes the airways to swell, the air sacs in the lungs to fill with mucus and other fluids, and a high fever and a cough with mucus. But if it is classified as atypical, the person may feel well enough to walk around and carry out daily tasks and not realize they have it, according to Cleveland Clinic.

They may feel like they have a bad cold or flu, and symptoms typically include sore throat, fatigue, chest pain or discomfort, low-grade fever, cough, sneezing, and headache, according to the medical center.

Mycoplasma spreads via droplets

Mycoplasma is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and releases small respiratory droplets that contain the bacteria into the air. These might infect other people if they breathe the droplets in, according to the CDC.

Those under the age of two, over the age of 65, or with a weakened immune system are more at risk of developing atypical pneumonia.

If caused by a bacteria such as mycoplasma, pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics as well as over-the-counter drugs to help with symptoms. It may last from four to six weeks with a cough usually being the longest-lasting symptom.

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