Published: Thu, October 18, 2018
Medicine | By Tracy Klein

Polio-like illness causing paralysis in children reaches the Carolinas

Polio-like illness causing paralysis in children reaches the Carolinas

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether these children are infected with acute flaccid myelitis, a rare neurological illness.

Cases of AFM have been reported in 22 states around the country, and all of those cases have tested negative for polio.

"We know this can be frightening for parents", Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told the press Wednesday.

"We have not been able to find a cause for the majority of these AFM cases", she said.

Lacking an established cause, health officials confirm cases through a review of brain scans and symptoms.

Each year since then, usually in August or September, the CDC has logged a spike in the illness. In 2017, one person died of AFM. Officials have been unable to determine why the spikes are coming in waves. Officials said it's too early to know whether the total for 2018 will surpass those previous years.

In addition to viruses, potential causes may include environmental toxins and genetic disorders, according to the CDC, and it "can be hard to diagnose because it shares numerous same symptoms as other neurologic diseases".

It's possible that some milder cases haven't been reported by doctors to their state health department or the CDC, but Messonnier believes that number would be small. Sixty-two cases are confirmed. Fewer than one in a million get the disease.

Parents have reported that the limbs of affected children appear lifeless.

On a Facebook page dedicated to the disease, one parent posted that her daughter was diagnosed with AFM four years ago after catching enterovirus. The disease is marked by a sudden onset of weakness and loss of muscle tone in the arms and legs caused by an attack on the nervous system and spinal cord. Hospitals can provide supportive care for people who acquire AFM, with doctors monitoring bodily functions in case patients require breathing assistance before their bodies begin to fight the illness on their own. The CDC says an outbreak in 2014 seemed to coincide with an outbreak of enterovirus D68, however the virus wasn't found in every AFM patient.

Health officials said five kids in Maryland are believed to have contracted a virus this fall that has symptoms similar to polio.

At this point, health officials are not sure what causes AFM but say that it can occur after a viral infection, West Nile Virus and other illnesses. This year is one of them.

The agency doesn't know who may be at higher risk for developing this condition or the reasons they may be at higher risk. But so far, no pathogen has been consistently detected in the patients' spinal fluid.

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for AFM, though the CDC says neurologists may suggest options on a case-by-case basis. The average age was 4. "And he's had a lot of support at school with physical therapy".

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