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Ohio "white lung" pneumonia cases not linked to China outbreak or novel pathogen, experts say

Pediatric pneumonia outbreaks reported
Pediatric pneumonia outbreaks reported in Ohio, Massachusetts 01:36

Health officials in Ohio are warning about an increase in pneumonia cases among children — but experts say there isn't a connection between this outbreak and the one happening in China

In a press release Thursday, officials in Ohio's Warren County (located between Cincinnati and Dayton) shared an update on the outbreak there, noting 145 cases have been reported in children aged 3 to 14 years old. 

These cases of pediatric pneumonia — which some have referred to as "white lung syndrome" — most typically cause cough, fever and fatigue. Doctors say most cases of bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics and most don't require hospitalization.

Officials also said the recent illnesses are "not suspected of being a new/novel respiratory virus," but instead appear to be an uptick in the number of "typical pediatric pneumonia cases."

"There has been zero evidence of this outbreak being connected to other outbreaks, either statewide, nationally or internationally," the statement said. 

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also addressed questions about it at a House committee hearing Thursday, saying there is no evidence of a new virus like COVID-19 in the China outbreak.

"What we do know as of, again, as of today is we do not believe this is a new or novel pathogen," she said. "We believe this is all existing, meaning COVID, flu, RSV, mycoplasma." Mycoplasma is a type of bacteria that can cause pneumonia.

"They are seeing an upsurgence," she added. She said the CDC has been working with its counterparts in China and other countries to monitor the situation.

Dr. Céline Gounder, a CBS News medical contributor and infectious disease specialist, says the outbreaks in the U.S. and China are similar but not connected.

"In both cases we're seeing an increase in the usual viruses and bacteria that we see circulating in the community every year — and we're seeing an increase in kids and infants in particular who don't have immunity to some of these same viruses and bacteria that the rest of us have been exposed to," said Gounder, who is also the editor at large for public health at KFF Health News.

Doctors in Massachusetts have also reported an uptick in cases of respiratory illness. In a statement to CBS News, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said the state has seen a "modest increase" in pediatric pneumonia cases the past few weeks.

"This increase is seasonally appropriate and in line with the levels of pneumonia typically seen at this time of year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement said. "These pneumonia cases are most likely related to a combination of respiratory viruses including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which normally increases in the winter months."

The statement added there is "no evidence" that the cases seen there were related to mycoplasma, a type of pneumonia that has gained attention as a potential factor elsewhere.

"Mycoplasma is a bacterium that can infect the lungs, and often causes what is referred to as 'walking pneumonia,'" the statement explains. "While this type of pneumonia tends to be mild in adolescents and adults, it can be problematic in infants and children."

To prevent children from getting a more serious lung infection like pneumonia, Gounder says it's best to vaccinate kids against viruses like the flu, COVID and RSV.

"While these viruses may not kill children and infants, they do leave these kids more vulnerable to both viral pneumonia as well as bacteria pneumonia and that can be prevented through the vaccination or through the RSV shots," Gounder says.

In addition to appropriate shots, there are other way to help protect children against sickness this cold and flu season.

Keep immune systems going strong by "eating nutritious food, getting enough physical activity and sleep," Dr. Evelyn Chan, pediatrician and CEO of digital therapeutics company Smileyscope, previously told CBS News

You can also teach kids ways to reduce infections, she said. 

"So, wash their hands frequently, sneeze into their elbow, wear masks where possible, stay at home if they have an illness so that they don't spread it to others," Chan advised.  

Some experts also suggest masking again in some situations to help reduce your risk not only for COVID but other respiratory illnesses. 

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