Published: Wed, October 17, 2018
Medical | By Vicki Mclaughlin

Polio-like illness causing paralysis in children reaches the Carolinas

Polio-like illness causing paralysis in children reaches the Carolinas

Federal health officials are anxious about an increase in a mysterious and rare condition that mostly affects children and can paralyze arms and legs, with 127 confirmed or suspected cases reported as of Tuesday.

The state's health department said the five reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) also are being investigated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are among dozens of cases the federal health agency is looking into across the country.

About 90 percent of the cases are children who have suffered muscle weakness or paralysis, including in the face, neck, back or limbs.

Acute flaccid myelitis is a rare condition that affects the spinal cord and can cause partial paralysis. Neurological conditions like it have a variety of causes, such as viruses, environmental toxins and genetic disorders.

"This is a mystery so far", Messonnier said, describing AFM as a "pretty dramatic disease", which preys on a child's nervous system. Officials have been unable to determine why the spikes are coming in waves.

"We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned", said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director for the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a teleconference call with reporters.

In a few cases, it appears that the illnesses were linked to viruses, including enterovirus.

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However, officials have not been able to identify the cause of most of the AFM cases, or the reason for the spikes in 2014, 2016 and now 2018.

The Department of Health encourages parents to contact their healthcare providers as soon as they notice any of the above symptoms in their children. Parents should seek medical care immediately if their child develops sudden weakness or loss of muscle tone in the arms and legs.

The mysterious increase in cases of AFM, as it's called, was first spotted in the late summer and autumn of 2014.

About 120 confirmed cases were reported in 2014. But Messonnier cautioned that it would be "premature" to be confident that this year will be the same as the earlier years. No one finding can explain all the cases, she said.

This year, five children in Maryland have come down with AFM symptoms, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Because the symptoms are similar, AFM is often confused with polio, a crippling and potentially fatal disease that is caused by a virus.

In some individuals, health officials have determined that the condition was from infection with a type of virus that causes severe respiratory illness.

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