The Director-General of WHO, Margaret Chan, is to convene a high-level meeting of infectious disease experts on Wednesday, providing them with crucial information about a mysterious resurgence of respiratory illnesses in several countries.
At issue is a strain of the rarebut very deadlyOmicron -Y meningitis or “olympic meningitis” – that appeared earlier this year to have reduced the number of severe cases of the disease in some regions.
Two years ago, hundreds of people died in Asia due to the meningitis illness. WHO and its partners sought to track the origins of the outbreak. An analysis was inconclusive, leading to the assumption that it was either a mutation or a different disease, or both.
“Initial evidence suggests that the outbreak has been traced to a large number of individuals experiencing influenza-like symptoms in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam,” WHO said in an alert posted online on July 12.
WHO would not say whether the suspected geographic area includes North Korea. But a 27-year-old North Korean defector told reporters on Thursday that he had lost a close relative to the illness in 2013 in Pyongyang.
The agency said the investigation had “sealed the mystery” in the northeastern part of Hong Kong’s Sai Kung area in late spring, two years after meningitis and rare flu outbreaks in the city killed four people.
After those earlier deaths, WHO traced eight children with meningitis to their care facilities, and two adults. Then in March, a 28-year-old mother of three had meningitis in her hometown in the coastal town of Kuantan and died in hospital.
According to the Hong Kong Department of Health, the initial meningitis-like illness was in January 2014, when 11 children and two adults died. Deaths were reported from April to June. In July 2014, eight more children died; eight others contracted meningitis.
WHO did not elaborate in the alert what it meant by “sealed the mystery” – if the outbreak had been traced to the same Omicron strain – or to the designation of Kuantan as the site of two deaths.
According to figures from the Hong Kong Health Department, between 1,458 and 1,958 cases of the illness were reported in Hong Kong between October 2014 and June 2017, with the most widely distributed forms of meningitis occurring in homes, schools and workplaces.
Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were also affected, according to WHO.
WHO experts are evaluating the experience of the Hong Kong outbreak to determine if other countries should be in line for a similar response, or if they should be asked to react more quickly.
“WHO’s top priority is to investigate this outbreak,” Dr. Mario Raviglione, head of WHO’s vaccines and immunization agency, said in a statement on Friday.
“We are working to answer the questions about what happened in Hong Kong. That is why I have called for an urgent meeting of the global influenza expert network today so we can see what more we can do.”