A polio-like illness is on the rise in the US, and its source and cause remain mysterious and unknown. The illness is a muscular condition called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) and affects the nervous system, mostly the spinal cord, and in most cases causes paralysis. The symptoms of AFM are compared to the symptoms of polio.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pediatrician Dr. Manisha Patel, there have been 50 reported cases in 24 different states since August 2016, which is more than half the reported cases in all of 2015 combined. Ninety percent of these cases are children.
Health officials believe the condition is occurring due to enteroviruses, and is possibly linked to West Nile and adenoviruses. The enterovirus is the most likely culprit because these viruses circulate the most between August and October, and that is when the rise of AFM has occurred this year. Also, there is a strain of enterovirus presently in circulation, and in 2014, a certain enterovirus strain paralyzed 120 children throughout the US. So doctors think this could be the same enterovirus strain now linked to AFM. An enterovirus is any of a group of RNA viruses that usually occur in the gastrointestinal tract, and sometimes spread to the central nervous system or other parts of the body. Usually they cause only mild illness in children, but when they spread to the central nervous system is when they become more dangerous, and can even cause inflammation of the brain. The affecting of the central nervous system is a clear link to AFM.
Before paralysis occurs, symptoms of AFM include sudden limb weakness and limping, loss of muscle tone and reflexes, difficulty swallowing, and slurred speech. Respiratory failure can also occur if the muscles needed for breathing are among the muscles weakened.
Though the condition is still very rare, scientists at the CDC are hard at work testing patients’ blood, nose, respiratory, and spinal cord specimens to figure out the cause and how to accurately treat and prevent the illness. The source of the illness may not even be a single infection, but could possibly be the outcome of complications from more than one viral infection.
While scientists attempt to develop a vaccine and treatment, taking steps for prevention is necessary, most importantly with children. The most effective ways to prevent acquiring an enterovirus is to remain vigilant about washing your and your children’s hands with soap and water, and using insect repellent when outdoors to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses. Additionally, covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and not going to work or school when you’re sick, are both very important things to remember for prevention.