As many as 62 cases of a mysterious neurological polio-like illness have been diagnosed across 22 different states in recent weeks, with up to 90% of those cases being children. The illness, known as acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, is so rare that less than one in a million individuals are diagnosed with it each year. It is a condition that affects the nervous system, particularly the area of the spinal cord known as gray matter, and results in weakened muscles and reflexes – and sometimes even paralysis. What has caused this recent outbreak, however, has left health officials scratching their heads.
It’s important to be aware of the symptoms that are associated with acute flaccid myelitis so that you can get the appropriate (and timely) medical attention. In many cases, AFM will begin similar to that of a minor respiratory illness and may include a minor fever. However, the classic symptoms of AFM that makes it less likely to be mistaken for other illnesses is that its onset is rapid, and that it causes sudden weakness in the arms or legs. In addition, it can also cause children to have speech difficulty, facial drooping including the eyelids and difficulty moving the eyes, and even trouble swallowing or speaking. In severe cases it can also affect the diaphragm, which is the muscle that helps you breathe, and can result in a child needing to be placed on a ventilator. Because someone with AFM can deteriorate so quickly, healthcare professionals urge parents to seek immediate medical attention upon the first sign of symptoms – even if you think they may not be serious enough to warrant a visit to your doctor or local emergency room. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
While health experts don’t know what causes the disease nor what is causing the increased number of diagnosed cases, it tends to be a condition that peaks in the late summer and into the fall season. In previous cases it has been linked to different pathogens, but it is essentially a mystery disease. Although some experts say it may also be the result of different viral illnesses, including adenoviruses and enteroviruses, the West Nile virus, as well as genetic disorders. Despite its similarities to polio, no one who has been diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis has actually been diagnosed with polio itself, likely due to the existence of the polio vaccine.
Because AFM shares similarities to conditions such as polio and other neurological diseases, making a firm diagnosis can be difficult, therefore it’s typically diagnosed by examining the patient’s nervous system and finding out where they have weakness on their body. In addition, medical imaging tests such as an MRI will be ordered to get a better look at the brain and the spinal cord, as well as lab testing to check the cerebrospinal fluid, and nerve conduction tests. By running these tests, it will be easier for doctors to differentiate between acute flaccid myelitis and other diseases.
As there isn’t much known about the long-term prognosis or outcomes in individuals with AFM, there isn’t any specific treatment for the disease. However, some patients can benefit from physical or occupational therapy as this can help improve function of the arms or legs if there is severe weakness. Some patients can completely recover from AFM, while others will continue to struggle. To prevent AMF, the CDC says that getting vaccinated and using things like insect repellent (to help ward off mosquitos, as they are carriers of the West Nile virus) can be helpful. Meanwhile, researchers continue to study this disease to look for other potential causes, as well as other methods of treatment that could be helpful.