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CDC warns of outbreak of child-paralyzing disease this fall

On top of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, Americans should expect another outbreak of the rare but paralyzing disease acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Tuesday. 

AFM is a mysterious disease that experts believe can be triggered by several enteroviruses – but primarily EV-D68 – which commonly cause respiratory infections, but occasionally lead to devastating illnesses in children. 

Scientists aren’t sure why, but outbreaks of AFM tend to happen every two years, with more than 100 children affected in the fall of 2014, 2016 and 2018. 

AFM is a neurological condition that is believed to develop after a virus attacks children’s spinal cords (directly or indirectly), leading to limb and muscle weakness and sometimes long-term disability or paralysis.

And as parents brace themselves to send their children to school amid the pandemic, the CDC is urging them to be vigilant for this additional threat to their kids’ health. 

Although sporadic reports of the disease occur in off years and the intervening months, cases of AFM tend to crop up primarily between August and November of every other year, as enteroviruses begin circulating more actively.  

Last year, 238 American children who were on average five years old developed AFM, 98 percent of them had to be hospitalized for the condition, according to a new CDC report also released Tuesday. 

More than half (54 percent) of those children had to be hospitalized for the condition, and 23 percent had to be kept alive with mechanical ventilators. 

A few families over the years have attributed their children’s deaths to AFM, but no fatalities have been confirmed. 

But many have been left with long-term, if not permanent disability. 

US health officials are particularly concerned about the recurrence of AFM amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

On average, children eventually diagnosed with AFM showed signs of respiratory infections about six days before coming to hospitals for limb numbness or weakness.  

In past years, parents would have likely assumed their child had a common cold until they became physically weak, at which point a trip to the hospital would be in order. 


Now, families must also contend with the possibility of COVID-19, which presents with similar symptoms of coughing, fever, fatigue and shortness of breath. 

‘We are concerned that cases of AFM might not be recognized amid the coronavirus pandemic or parents might be fearful of taking their kids to the hospital if they develop something as serious as limb weakness,’ said CDC director Dr Robert Redfield on a Tuesday media call. 

But he urged parents to act quickly if they suspect that their kids may have AFM. 

In the newly released report, the CDC noted that more than a third of children who developed AFM weren’t brought to hospitals until two or more days after their parents noticed their weak limbs. 

Concerns over coronavirus could fuel further delays with devastating consequences. 

‘AFM can progress rapidly over the course of hours or days, leading to permanent paralysis and/or the life-threatening complication of respiratory failure in previously healthy patients, so delays in care can be serious,’ the report authors wrote. 

AFM only emerged as a known disease within the last decade, and the CDC didn’t begin tracking it until 2014. 

But Dr Redfield said the CDC takes it very seriously now, considering the disease a top priority which doctors are now better prepared to diagnose and treat the devastating disease.  

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