Rare Paralyzing Polio-Like Illness Affecting Children Spreads to 22 U.S. States

Quinton Hill, 7 of Lakeville, Minn., lost movement in one arm last month due to the mysterious syndrome known as acute flaccid myelitis. Credit: Courtesy of Hill family

Federal health officials took the unusual step on Tuesday of warning the public about an increase in a mysterious and rare condition that mostly affects children and can cause paralysis.

So far this year, 127 confirmed or suspected cases of acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a significant increase over 2017 and a worrying perpetuation of a disease for which there is little understanding.

Of the cases announced Tuesday, 62 have been confirmed in 22 states, according to Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the CDC. More than 90 percent of the confirmed cases have been in children 18 and younger, with the average age being 4 years old.

The surge has baffled health officials, who on Tuesday announced a change in the way the agency is counting cases. They also wanted to raise awareness about the condition so parents can seek medical care if their child develops symptoms, and so physicians can quickly relay reports of the potential illness to the CDC.

“We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned about AFM,” said Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Despite extensive laboratory and other testing, CDC has not been able to find the cause for the majority of the cases. “There is a lot we don’t know about AFM, and I am frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness.”

The increase in cases appeared to begin in 2014, when the CDC started tracking the illness. Each year since then, usually in August or September, the CDC has logged a spike in the illness. The spikes were significantly higher in 2014, 2016 and 2018-to-date than in 2015 or 2017. The CDC knows of one child who died with the disorder in 2017.

Since officials have been unable so far to determine how the disease spreads, they are starting to count suspected cases as well as confirmed to better anticipate increases over the coming months. It’s too early to know whether the total for 2018 will surpass those previous years. But the data reported Tuesday represents “a substantially larger number than in previous months this year,” Messonnier said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Lena H. Sun