Eyewitness footage from inside a Chinese hospital showed large crowds of families lining up for treatment amid a massive surge in respiratory illnesses that is hitting children the hardest.

The video was obtained by Reuters and released this weekend, showing hundreds of masked adults and children gathered in a waiting area of the Beijing Children’s Hospital.

This is the first winter season since China eased its zero-tolerance policy on COVID-19 — a policy that gave municipalities sweeping powers to institute quarantines and mandatory testing to keep COVID-19 cases under control. While unpopular with residents, the policy helped China keep COVID-19 cases relatively low.

Many countries around the world saw spikes in respiratory illnesses after loosening pandemic restrictions. Last year in November, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) sounded the alarm on rising flu cases, indicating the “start of an influenza epidemic.” At the same time, the U.S. was reporting its highest number of flu hospitalizations since 2010.

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Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) asked Chinese authorities to provide data on the surge of respiratory illnesses after reports emerged about clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia in children’s hospitals in Beijing and Liaoning provinces.

The next day, WHO held a teleconference with Chinese health authorities in which the requested data was provided, showing an increase in hospital admissions of children due to mycoplasma pneumonia since May, as well as a rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus and influenza cases since October.

Parents with children suffering from respiratory diseases line up at a children’s hospital in Chongqing, China, November 23, 2023.

CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Chinese health authorities told the UN health agency that there has been no detection of “unusual or novel pathogens” amid the rise in respiratory illness.

Outside scientists said the situation warranted close monitoring but were not convinced that the recent spike in China signalled the start of a new global outbreak. The emergence of new viruses capable of triggering pandemics typically starts with undiagnosed clusters of respiratory illness. Both SARS and COVID-19 were first reported as unusual types of pneumonia.

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“Some of these increases are earlier in the season than historically experienced, but not unexpected given the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, as similarly experienced in other countries,” WHO states.

The Public Health Agency of Canada told Global News in a statement that it is aware of the reports in China.

“PHAC continues to closely monitor the situation and will update the public if there is a risk to people in Canada,” a spokesperson said.

Click to play video: 'WHO requests information about respiratory illness spike in China’s youth population'

WHO requests information about respiratory illness spike in China’s youth population

China’s National Health Commission is calling on local authorities to open more fever clinics and promote vaccinations among children and the elderly amid the surge.

“Efforts should be made to increase the opening of relevant clinics and treatment areas, extend service hours and increase the supply of medicines,” said ministry spokesman Mi Feng.

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He advised people to wear masks and called on local authorities to focus on preventing the spread of illnesses in crowded places such as schools and nursing homes. According to internal accounts in China, the outbreaks have swamped some hospitals in northern parts of the country, including in Beijing, and health authorities have asked the public to take children with less severe symptoms to clinics and other facilities.

Chinese officials maintained the spike in patients had not overloaded the country’s hospitals, according to the WHO.

WHO said that there “is limited detailed information available” to properly assess the risk of these reported cases of respiratory illness in children, as of now.Both Chinese authorities and WHO have been accused of a lack of transparency in their initial reports on the COVID-19 pandemic, which first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

— With files from the Associated Press

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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