The Grapevine

What Is Acute Flaccid Myelitis? Polio-Like Illness Affecting Children Across US

Instances of a polio-like illness have been on the rise, affecting dozens of children across the United States. The comparison to polio is due to the fact that it can result in temporary or permanent paralysis. 

CNN found 47 confirmed cases of the illness this year, as well as 49 suspected cases that were being investigated. The affected states are Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.

The rare condition, known as acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, affects the gray matter of the spinal cord. While still considered to be rare, diagnoses have seen a slight rise since 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Initially, the person may face generic flu-like symptoms such as weakness, coughing, sneezing, etc. Later, they may also experience loss of muscle tone, slurred speech, facial drooping, and difficulty in actions like moving their eyes, swallowing, and breathing.

The area where paralysis occurs depends on the part of the spinal cord affected by AFM, according to Dr. Fernando Acosta, a pediatric neurologist at Cook Children's Medical Center, Texas. So if AFM affects the lower side of the spinal cord, the paralysis tends to occur in the legs. And if it affects the higher side, the arms are more likely to experience paralysis.

"Or if it's closer to the neck, then they can't move head, neck, and shoulders. We had one case of that and that was just awful," Acosta said.

Recovery tends to vary as treatment is decided on a case-to-case basis. Some patients recover quickly while others may require physical therapy before regaining movement. In extreme cases, the affected person requires long-term care or may even die from neurological complications. 

There is no evidence suggesting that AFM is contagious. And as of now, experts are not sure as to what exactly causes it. The CDC does note that certain viruses, environmental toxins, and genetic disorders are possible causes.

While there are several different viruses that could cause AFM, the number of cases is still very low, said Dr. Samuel Dominguez, medical director of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Children's Hospital Colorado.

"This is a relatively uncommon syndrome. So I think that should be reassuring to people," he explained, noting that AFM is likely a rare complication from a common virus.

Until more research is done, experts say the best prevention tactic is to maintain good personal hygiene by washing hands regularly. Those who are exposed to mosquitoes (which may carry West Nile virus) can use clothing and repellent to protect themselves from possible exposure. And of course, it is essential that children are vaccinated against the poliovirus.