Mysterious Paralyzing Illness Found Among Kids in 22 States

Lynette PayneOct 17, 2018

Some victims have been infected with viruses, but researchers have been unable to identify a single virus responsible for all cases.

There have been no confirmed cases of AFM in Maine this year, according to Emily Spencer, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine CDC. There has been one AFM-related death, which happened in 2017.

Health experts say acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is a polio-like syndrome that affects the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord. The CDC still has not pin-pointed exactly what's causing this disorder, but they suspect a virus that circulates this time of the year.

A sharp spike in cases of pediatric acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is raising red flags with health officials, who despite concerted efforts, haven't identified a cause. Maryland's first case was reported September 21.

The CDC began tracking the condition in 2014, when there were 120 confirmed cases.

"What parents have to know is if your child suddenly has a weak arm or leg, is not speaking properly, has a stiff neck or a wobbly neck - call the doctor immediately", pediatrician Dr. Laura Popper said.

About 90 percent of the cases are children who have suffered muscle weakness or paralysis.

Once diagnosed, some patients have recovered quickly, but some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care, Messonnier said.

Beginning in the summer and fall of 2014, an apparent increase in reports of AFM occurred in the United States.

CDC is not releasing a list of the 22 states with confirmed and suspected cases because of privacy issues.

The cases this year seem to be spread across much of the country, as were the earlier two waves. But the data reported Tuesday represents "a substantially larger number than in previous months this year", Messonnier said.

She said it was important for parents and clinicians to remember that this is a rare condition, affecting less than 1 in 1 million people under 18.

AFM remains extremely rare, even with the recent increase.

Although symptoms resemble polio, no evidence of poliovirus has been found in specimens from any case diagnosed so far, Messonnier said. Some possible suspects, such as polio and West Nile virus, have been ruled out.

Because officials don't know the cause of AFM, they can't recommend a specific way to prevent it.

Cases similar to Tunan's son are spreading to children around the age of four nationwide. There have been cases each year since, but the numbers have been higher on alternate years.

The CDC is investigating the outbreak. "So I think that should be reassuring to people", Dominguez said.

But the agency doesn't know who may be at higher risk nor why they may be at higher risk. No pathogen has been consistently detected in the patients' spinal fluid.

The CDC is actively investigating and monitoring disease activity and recommends taking standard prevention measures such as hand-washing, protecting oneself from mosquito bites and staying up-to-date on vaccinations.

State and national health authorities are raising the alarm about a polio-like "mystery illness" that has left dozens of children with paralysis and other symptoms in MA and 21 other states.

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