Earlier this month, we reported that six children from Minnesota contracted a rare, polio-like illness called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which causes sudden paralyzing weakness in the arms and legs. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed an additional 56 cases across 22 states on Wednesday, and are investigating a further 65.
Medical officials do not know how the disease is spreading or what is causing it in the first place, but we do know that it primarily affects the young – more than 90 percent of patients are under 18.
AFM attacks the patient's nervous system (and the spinal cord, in particular) resulting in extreme weakness of the arms and legs.
"Many times it can start with what looks like a respiratory illness, a little bit of a fever," Tara Narula, a cardiologist and medical contributor to CBS News, told CBS This Morning.
"The hallmark is sudden onset of weakness in the arms or the legs. Children can also have trouble swallowing, trouble with their speech, facial droop, trouble with their eye muscles." And in the most serious cases, it can be life-threatening. If it affects the diaphragm and disrupts breathing, patients may be put on a ventilator.
These symptoms are similar to the poliovirus (which was eliminated in the US in 1979 after a successful national vaccination program) as well as non-polio enteroviruses, adenoviruses, and the West Nile virus. Doctors have tested AFM sufferers for poliovirus but the results came back negative.
Unfortunately, there is currently no specific treatment plan for the disease, though medics may advise physical or occupational therapy on a case-by-case basis. It is also not known exactly what the long-term implications of the disease are. Some patients have recovered and others continue to experience paralysis, requiring ongoing care.
While AFM has made it onto quite a few headlines this year, the number of confirmed cases is on a similar level to those in 2014 and 2016. The disease appears to peak between August and October and spikes on alternate years, but diagnosis has been on the rise since 2014 and scientists have no idea why.
In total, 386 cases were confirmed between August 2014 and September 2018. So while it is a scary condition, it is also extremely rare and affects less than one in every million people in the US – even with the spike in cases.
Researchers are looking into a number of possible causes from viruses to genetic disorders to environmental toxins. The CDC is also monitoring the spread of the disease and asks parents or guardians to seek medical attention immediately if their child begins to experience a sudden and dramatic weakness or loss of muscle tone in their limbs.
Adults can take preventative steps to protect children from illness as much as is possible – think: washing hands, using insect repellant, and staying up to date on vaccination programs.