Strange, Polio-like Illness Appears to be Surging in America This Year

McKenzie Anderson, before and after she came down with a mysterious disease called acute flaccid myelitis, which is a lot like polio. (Family photos)
McKenzie Anderson, before and after she came down with a mysterious disease called acute flaccid myelitis, which is a lot like polio. (Family photos)

Before dinner on July 29, 3-year-old Carter Roberts of Chesterfield, Va., seemed perfectly healthy. That evening, he vomited. When he woke up the next morning with a slight fever of 99 degrees, his mother, Robin Roberts, figured that he was coming down with a cold. The next morning, she found him collapsed on his bedroom floor.

“Mommy,” she recalls him saying. “Help me, help me.”

Carter could barely stand when she picked him up, and his neck was arched backward. “What was most alarming,” she said, “is he had no control over his right arm whatsoever.”

In the hospital, Carter lost control of his right arm, then over his legs and other muscles within a few days. He now can only wiggle a toe and move the left side of his face. He has been diagnosed with a mysterious, polio-like illness called acute flaccid myelitis, a condition that seems to be surging this year.

Through July, 32 new cases of AFM have been confirmed across the United States this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a sharp rise compared with last year, when just seven cases had been confirmed by that month. The numbers have risen steadily since April. In past years, most cases have occurred between August and December, with a peak in October.

Among the many unanswered questions about the condition are what causes it, how best to treat it and how long the paralysis lasts. Although most cases occur in children, AFM occasionally affects adults.

The CDC official who leads the surveillance efforts said that confirmed numbers for August will not be available until the end of this month, but the number of reports she is receiving from doctors around the country continues to rise.

“CDC is looking at these trends very carefully,” Manisha Patel said. “We have sent out several health alerts to states to let them know we are seeing an increase in reporting and to encourage them to communicate with doctors to report these cases in a timely fashion.”

The CDC began tracking AFM in 2014, when 121 cases were confirmed. That year, the CDC counted only children affected by the disease. Their average age was 7. Most had a fever or a respiratory illness a few days before developing paralysis. Many had to be placed on respirators. Although 85 percent of the children recovered partially, only three of them recovered fully.

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SOURCE: Dan Hurley 
The Washington Post