An increasing number of polio-like illnesses have recently been recorded in 16 states across the United States. Even so, it is still considered a very rare condition that affects less than one in a million people in the country each year.
Polio-Like Cases In The United States
This year, there have been more and more reports of a polio-like illness in various states. Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is likened to polio because of the way it weakens the arms and legs. Typically, there are relatively small incidences of AFM, but recent reports show that the numbers are increasing once again.
These past weeks alone, six cases of AFM were reported in Minnesota, and nine suspected cases are reportedly being monitored by the Illinois Department of Public Health, while the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 14 cases in the state this year. In Pittsburgh, a hospital is also monitoring three suspected cases of the condition.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the increase in AFM cases began in August 2014, most of the affected patients being children. From the onset of the increase up to August 2018, there are a total of 362 confirmed cases of AFM, 38 of which were from 2018, 33 from 2017, 149 from 2016, 22 from 2015, and 120 from August to December 2014.
However, while the 2014 increase in AFM cases was associated to a coinciding outbreak of severe respiratory illnesses associated with enterovirus D68 at the time, the specific cause of the increase in cases is still unknown. That said, the CDC notes that despite the increase, AFM continues to be a very rare condition.
Acute Flaccid Myelitis
Reported cases of AFM have been popping up in news reports of late, but what exactly is it?
AFM is a very rare condition that primarily affects the patient’s nervous system, specifically the spinal cord. Some of its symptoms may include sudden weakness of the arms or legs, loss of muscle tone, and absence of reflexes. In some cases, AFM may also affect the neck and facial nerves and may cause drooping of the eyelids, facial weakness, and difficulties in swallowing, talking, and moving the eyes.
As in many of the recent AFM cases, most of the affected are children, although it may also affect adults. So far, the most serious known complication related to AFM is respiratory failure as a result of the weakening of the muscles involved in breathing.
That said, the CDC continues to try to understand AFM, including finding out who are more at risk as well as the long-term risks related to the illness. For instance, while some AFM patients recover quickly, some continue to have paralysis and require care. Further, while AFM may be caused by environmental toxins, genetic disorders, or even after a bout with viral infections such as polio virus or West Nile virus, in some cases, the cause of AFM is not found. Even in cases when it is linked to a virus, the way that AFM is triggered is still unknown, and so are the reasons why some develop AFM while others do not.
For now, the CDC stresses the importance of disease prevention practices such as proper hand washing, having up-to-date vaccinations, and preventing mosquito bites.