Concern among parents about a “polio-like” infection in kids called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) spiked this week in the wake of warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealing that a record number of cases occurred last year.
Published in the CDC’s Vital Signs on Tuesday, the report notes 233 confirmed cases of AFM in 2018, the “largest number since surveillance began in 2014.” Among those cases, “limb weakness,” one of the disease’s main features, was said to begin anywhere from two to seven days into the illness. Experts say the earlier the disease is identified, the better the chances are of living a normal life.
While concern and vigilance is certainly warranted, the report makes it clear that panic should not be the result. Here is a breakdown of symptoms, treatment, and how to spot the early signs.
Acute Flaccid Myelitis first appears like a cold.
The National Institute of Health defines AFM as a “rare disease that affects the spinal cord, the part of the nervous system that carries messages to and from the brain.” But while limb weakness is a hallmark symptom, the presence of the disease can be confused for a common cold, with early symptoms like cough, congestion, and fever.
From there, look for unusual symptoms.
Following symptoms of a flu-like infection, according to the CDC, there will be a “sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes.” On top of watching for these developments, the CDC notes other unusual symptoms that can appear, including “facial droop or weakness, difficulty moving eyes, drooping eyelids, slurred speech and pain in the arms and legs.”
If these are present, seek medical care right away.
Just last week a family in Cincinnati, Ohio started a GoFundMe for their son, a 16-year-old who is “fighting for his life” after experiencing these symptoms. Seth Dryer’s parents say that he came down with with a cold, but then quickly started to deteriorate. “[He] started throwing up, and then he had the inability to swallow,” Joni Dryer, his mother, told Fox19. “That’s what took us to the doctor.” If symptoms like this appear, the CDC says to “seek medical care right away.”
Late summer early fall is when kids are most at risk.
The CDC’s warning was intentionally timed to prime parents for what has consistently been shown to be the most common time for the disease to occur. “Many viruses commonly circulate between August and October, including enteroviruses, and will be temporally associated with AFM,” the CDC notes. In total, 41 states have reported cases, with the most occurring in California and Colorado.
Use “common sense” precautions.
The Mayo Clinic recommends practicing the same methods you’d use to prevent other illnesses, such as, “Use commonsense precautions to avoid catching illnesses — such as having your child regularly wash his or her hands with soap and water.” The CDC takes this a step further, suggesting “cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces,” as well as toys and doorknobs, and keeping sick children at home.
Early intervention is key.
While there is currently no vaccine — or cure — for AFM, Johns Hopkins University notes that “early, intensive rehabilitation is essential for day-to-day function for children,” the university writes. With immediate treatment, kids who are affected will “be able to get dressed, go to school and perform activities of daily living.” For this, consultation with a neurologist immediately is key.
The disease is still incredibly rare.
Being knowledgeable on the signs of acute flaccid myelitis are crucial, but constant worry about your child developing the disease are unnecessary. The vast majority of kids who develop a common cold or a viral infection fully recover without developing AFM. With cases nationwide still numbering in the hundreds, it’s safe to say your child’s chances of getting it are, in the words of STAT, “one in a million.”