Mysterious Polio-Like Illness Cases Continue to Surface

The CDC has issued an update on the number of recent cases of a polio-like illness, called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) that have been surfacing in multiple states across the U.S.

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CLEVELAND – Recent cases of a polio-like illness, called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) have been reported in 25 states across the U.S.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of confirmed cases has now reached 80, while 219  total cases are under investigation.

According to Frank Esper, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, experts have been tracking AFM for several years and have noticed a pattern of increased cases during the fall months.

“AFM is something we’ve been watching for since about 2014,” he said.  “It’s likely that this disease has been around for a while, but we are only now recognizing it. There are cases of AFM every year often occurring in the fall – usually around August, September, and October.” 

Dr. Esper said experts are still learning about AFM, but it is known to primarily affect children.

AFM typically starts as a common cold. Whereas a normal cold would run its course and be done, AFM develops afterward and results in muscle weakness of either one or both sides of the body, and usually impacts the arms or legs.

Dr. Esper said AFM can happen to any healthy child, but experts do not yet know why some children develop it and others do not.

“I think one of the things that scares a lot of people, is that these are normal, healthy, kids, who suddenly get very, very weak,” he said.

There is no specific treatment for AFM, and there are no antibiotics that can shorten the duration of the illness.

Dr. Esper said typically, by the time AFM develops, the initial cold virus has already run its course and the symptoms of weakness are likely the result of the body’s immune system response to the initial virus.

He said the best way to prevent AFM is to wash hands, stay home when sick, and cover coughs and sneezes to prevent transmission of germs.

While there are some children who need physical therapy and ongoing treatment to regain their strength following AFM, Dr. Esper said the vast majority of children who develop the illness get better quickly on their own.

“It is really one out of a million when you look at how often this is happening, it’s very very rare,” he said. “I think it’s also very reassuring that many of these children do better very quickly after – they get very weak, very quickly – but then the majority of them get better very quickly.” 

Dr. Esper also pointed out that although AFM is commonly referred to as a ‘polio-like’ illness, it is not polio – it just has similar symptoms. Both AFM and polio are triggered by viral infections, but he said U.S. children are vaccinated against polio and there are only a few pockets of populations worldwide that still experience poliovirus, none of which are in the U.S.

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