A rare illness likened to polio that targets the spinal cord and nervous system has affected children in 16 states.
Labeled Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM), doctors in Colorado believe the puzzling condition that has struck fear among parents may be linked to viruses that generally circulate during the fall season and can cause hand, foot and mouth diseases as well as common cold symptoms, respiratory failure and, in rare instances, neurologic disorders.
AFM bares similarities to a strain of enterovirus that enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract and which, in 2014, led to the paralysis of 120 children in 34 states. One study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics in 2012 described AFM as “clinically indistinguishable from polio paralysis.” However, it added one even more troubling caveat: the ailment is twice as deadly resulting in it being dubbed “the new polio.”
“It’s something that’s very scary for people because it’s a polio-like illness and it can show up in otherwise healthy children,” said Dr. Aaron Michael Milstone, associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a recent People magazine interview.
“If they have weakness in the legs, the child may not walk right, may limp a little or have trouble holding up their arms,” Milstone warned. “That’s when their parents should check in with their pediatrician.”
According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AFM, for which there is no current vaccine or treatment, often occurs because of viruses, environmental toxins or genetic disorders but the exact cause remains unknown.
In 2016, there was another spike and in the present year, 34 cases have been reported, including recent clusters in Colorado and Minnesota. Symptoms include: sudden limb weakness; drooping in the face; trouble swallowing; and slurred speech. Some cases have even led to paralysis or death.
“The most severe symptom of AFM is respiratory failure that can happen when the muscles involved with breathing become weak,” according to a CDC statement. “Numbness or tingling is rare in people with AFM, although some people have pain in their arms or legs. Some people with AFM may be unable to pass urine (pee). The most severe symptom of AFM is respiratory failure that can happen when the muscles involved with breathing become weak and may require urgent ventilator support (breathing machine),” Milstone said.
“In very rare cases, it is possible that the process in the body that triggers AFM may also trigger other serious neurologic complications and which collectively lead to death,” he added.
According to the D.C. Department of Health, while non-polio enteroviruses are “very common, infants, children, teenagers (because of their still developing immune systems) and others with weakened immune systems have a greater chance to become infected and sick because they have yet to develop immunity from previous exposures to the viruses.” Infants and people with weakened immune systems have a greater chance of having these complications,” the department said in a statement.
Infection from non-polio enteroviruses can also occur after having close contact with an infected person as well as by touching objects or surfaces that have the virus on them then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Meanwhile, to prevent spreading the virus, doctors recommend frequent hand-washing and keeping children home when they’re sick.