A wave of health concern is sweeping across Europe, echoing similar patterns of pediatric pneumonia seen in China. This concern stems from the increasing prevalence of a rather understated yet potent bacterium – Mycoplasma pneumonia, known for causing "walking pneumonia," particularly for children.
Mycoplasma pneumoniae is a unique bacterium with the capability of triggering a spectrum of respiratory infections, ranging from mild to severe pneumonia. This pathogen predominantly targets school-aged children, with Public Health France indicating it accounts for 30-50% of community-acquired pneumonia infections in this demographic.
Pneumonia, as it stands, is a condition where the lungs’ air sacs become inflamed, potentially filling with fluid or pus. This results in symptoms that include coughing and difficulty breathing.
Currently, six countries within the European Union or European Economic Area have reported a spike in infections caused by this bacterium, which could be a regular pattern of occurrence or a repercussion of the restricted transmission rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some nations, including Denmark and France, have elevated the situation to the status of an "epidemic." Dr. Hanne-Dorthe Emborg, a senior researcher at Denmark’s Statens Serum Institute, explains that the epidemic threshold is crossed when over 10% of medical tests return positive for the bacterium.
This bacterium is a primary cause of "walking pneumonia," an infection mild enough that individuals can often continue their daily activities without severe disruption. The symptoms are akin to those of the flu but are marked by prolonged coughing, fatigue, and headaches.
International surveillance noticed an uptick in Mycoplasma pneumoniae infections over the last six months. Data from April to September 2023, encompassing 24 countries, revealed higher incidences in Europe and Asia, with Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and Wales experiencing the most frequent detections.
Countries like Denmark, France, and the Netherlands have reported significant increases in cases, particularly among children aged five to 14. The Netherlands has even prompted general practitioners to conduct additional throat and nose tests.
The reasons behind the current surge in "walking pneumonia" cases remain speculative. Some health officials link it to the aftermath of lifting COVID-19 restrictions. A significant decrease in Mycoplasma pneumoniae cases was seen during the COVID-19 restrictions, a trend common among various respiratory tract infections. But while other infections like flu and RSV re-emerged quickly, Mycoplasma pneumoniae remained largely absent, only to resurface recently. Various theories are being considered, including the bacterium’s longer incubation period and its slow growth rate.
Historically, Mycoplasma pneumoniae epidemics have occurred roughly every four years. The most recent epidemic was from 2015-2018, followed by an unusual dip in cases during the pandemic, leading to almost no circulation of the bacterium. This resurgence, while concerning, is not entirely unexpected.
While the current rise in cases is not seen as alarming, it serves as a reminder of the dynamic nature of infectious diseases and the importance of vigilance in public health.