The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the increasing prevalence of respiratory infectious diseases in the WHO European Region. With the onset of colder weather, several countries including Czechia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, and Slovakia are experiencing a surge in respiratory illnesses. Young children are particularly affected, with a significant rise in symptoms such as fever and cough, similar to last year. The increase is primarily attributed to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections, which are common during the autumn, winter, and spring months in Europe.
RSV infections typically present with symptoms such as runny nose, cough, fever, and wheezing. While most cases resolve within a few weeks, severe infections can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Alongside the rise in RSV infections, there is also an increase in COVID-19 cases and a smaller but notable surge in seasonal influenza. Some countries are also reporting more infections and hospitalizations related to Mycoplasma pneumoniae, a bacterial cause of community-acquired pneumonia among children.
The surge in RSV activity is reflected in a sharp rise in RSV-related hospitalizations among young children, especially those under 6 months old. RSV infections are a significant contributor to deaths in children under 5 years old. While most children will inevitably contract RSV, extra precautions are recommended for preterm babies and infants under 6 months, particularly those with underlying lung and heart disease.
COVID-19 continues to be a significant threat, especially among older individuals and those with risk factors for severe disease. Although hospitalization rates remain lower compared to last year, several countries, including Czechia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, and Slovakia, are witnessing an upward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Dr. Marc-Alain Widdowson from the WHO Regional Office for Europe suggests that infections among children who were protected during the pandemic may contribute to this year’s surge in respiratory pathogens.
Despite these concerning trends, the WHO emphasizes the importance of COVID-19 and influenza vaccines in mitigating the impact of respiratory illnesses. Vaccination efforts are targeting high-risk groups such as older adults, individuals with chronic diseases, and healthcare workers. Health authorities are actively promoting the uptake of vaccines and encouraging protective measures such as handwashing, staying home when ill, ensuring better ventilation, and taking advantage of vaccination opportunities to curb the spread of respiratory viruses.
As the winter respiratory illness season progresses, the WHO underscores the need for ongoing research, robust surveillance, and dynamic public health responses. Collaboration with Member States is essential to address the complexities of this multifaceted challenge and emphasize the significance of collective efforts in safeguarding public health. The evolving landscape of respiratory infections in Europe highlights the necessity of proactive measures and well-equipped health systems to effectively manage multiple threats.
It is important to note that in addition to Czechia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, and Slovakia, Poland is also experiencing a high number of rising COVID-19 infections. However, it should be acknowledged that some countries in Europe are not reporting COVID-19 statistics to the WHO or the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Additionally, certain countries, like France, are implementing geolocation blockings to restrict foreign media coverage of the developing crisis on their official health sites.