What Is 'White Lung Pneumonia' Outbreak in Ohio?

Officials say an increase in pediatric pneumonia, dubbed "white lung syndrome," is caused by well-known viruses and bacteria.

Warren County in Ohio has seen "an extremely high number" of pediatric pneumonia cases, with 142 reported since August this year. The number exceeds the county's average and meets the Ohio Department of Health's definition of an outbreak.

"We do not think this is a novel/new respiratory disease but rather a large uptick in the number of pneumonia cases normally seen at one time," according to the Warren County Health District (WCHD) press release.

What caused the outbreak?

Officials say a common thread linking these pneumonias remains unknown. An investigation examining possible linkages and risk factors is currently underway.

However, the currently available data shows that well-known pathogens, such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Adenovirus, cause some infections.

Chinese officials also link the current outbreak of pediatric pneumonia in the country's North to M. pneumoniae and other viruses that cause seasonal infections. The bacterium M. pneumoniae mainly affects children and causes mild disease that doesn't require antibiotics but may lead to severe infections in some patients.

However, there is "zero evidence" that the outbreak in Warren County "has any connection to any respiratory activity in the state, in the country, or in the world," Dr. Clint Koenig, the medical director of Warren County Health District, told ABC News.

According to the WCHD, the most common symptoms in the current pediatric pneumonia outbreak include cough, fever, and fatigue. The average patient age is eight years, and the cases span multiple school districts.

Doctors in Massachusetts also reported a modest increase in pediatric pneumonia cases. The statement to CBS News said the increase is typical to this season, and infections are most likely related to a combination of respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). There is "no evidence" that the spike is linked to M. pneumoniae.

Is 'white lung syndrome' an actual disease?

Because pneumonia causes whitening in areas of the lung on radiographic imaging, the recent infections were dubbed "white lung syndrome." However, it is not a precise medical term, and experts discourage the use of it.

Is the current outbreak unusual?

Recently, France and the Netherlands also reported rising pneumonia in children caused by M. pneumoniae bacterium.

Professor Francois Balloux, director at the University College London Genetics Institute, wrote on social network X that "there's no good reason" to refer to M. pneumoniae infections as "white lung syndrome."

He noted that these infections happen all year round and peak in winter, with larger epidemics roughly every four years.

The current outbreak in the Northern Hemisphere is due to the decrease in M. pneumoniae cases during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer children acquiring immunity. Moreover, the last M. pneumoniae epidemic happened in the 2019/2020 season.

How should I protect my children?

Consider taking preventative measures against M. pneumoniae and other seasonal infections to protect yourself and your children.

All Americans six months and older should receive the flu shot each year. Meanwhile, the RSV vaccine is recommended for individuals over the age of 60, women who are 32 to 36 weeks pregnant during RSV season, and babies younger than eight months and born during or entering their first RSV season.

To prevent yourself and your loved ones from other common seasonal infections, the CDC recommends:

  • Stay home when sick.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your shirt sleeve, not your hands.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with others, such as kissing, shaking hands, sharing cups and eating utensils.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs and mobile devices.

The rise in pediatric pneumonia in Ohio is unrelated to the outbreak in Northern China, although some infections in both countries are caused by the bacterium M. pneumoniae.

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