U.S. doctors baffled as rare spinal disease spreads across 22 states

Randy Kelley
October 18, 2018

There are now 62 confirmed reports of acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, an illness similar to polio, across 22 states in the USA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's possible that some milder cases haven't been reported by doctors to their state health department or the CDC, but Messonnier believes that number would be small.

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

Dozens of children across the United States have developed a rare polio-like illness, but the reason for this spike in cases remains a mystery, according to health officials.

"Overall, the rate of AFM over the years that it has been diagnosed which is since 2014 is less than one in a million."
Most of the cases have involved children.

The surge in cases has baffled health officials, who on Tuesday took the unusual step of announcing a change in the way the agency will count cases in the future.

The CDC has not traced the illness to a specific virus, but the agency said it has a variety of causes including viruses, environmental toxins and genetic disorders.

AFM can cause weakness and pain in the arms and legs. So far, from stool samples collected from patients, they have ruled out both west Nile virus and polio virus as causes of AFM.

To help prevent the illness' spread, the CDC advises proper hand washing, staying up to date on vaccines and using mosquito repellent to avoid bites.

"I think I would tell parents to be vigilant in looking out for, you know, arms or legs not working, that floppy head, those respiratory symptoms that don't seem consistent with other basic illnesses", she said. "But the appearance of the AFM symptoms is actually very rare".

As of yet, there is no known effective treatment for the condition, but the vast majority of patients do recover with treatment.

This year, cases have been confirmed in 22 states and New Jersey is reporting three.

Media reports in recent weeks have suggested that a "polio-like virus" might be triggering the condition, elevating fears that it might be polio itself. Nor can they explain why only a handful of infected children developed AFM.

The outlook for patients with AFM can vary from a quick recovery to ongoing paralysis, Messonnier said.

Lacking an established cause, health officials confirm cases through a review of brain scans and symptoms.

It advised that if one's child has similar symptoms, seek medical care right away.

There were outbreaks of around 100 cases, nationwide, between August and October in both 2014 and 2016.

"Early intervention is definitely always helpful".

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