Six children in Minnesota have been infected with a rare disease that causes lowered mobility or paralysis in the arms and legs. The disease is called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), and state health officials are warning parents to be on the lookout for symptoms.
All six cases have been diagnosed since Sept. 20, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, which says officials are working “aggressively” with health care providers to try to gather more information about the cases. All of the recent cases, which have been reported from the Twin Cities, central Minnesota, and northeastern Minnesota, have been in children under the age of 10.
AFM affects the nervous system, specifically the area of a person’s spinal cord called gray matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It’s very polio-like in presentation,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “A person’s arms and legs can become weak or paralyzed depending on the area of the spinal cord that is inflamed.”
AFM is thought to happen after someone contracts a virus, like poliovirus, West Nile virus, or adenovirus, the CDC says. “It can affect people of any age, but you often see it in children,” Adalja says.
Symptoms can include sudden arm or leg weakness, a loss of reflexes, facial droopiness or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing, or slurred speech, the CDC reports. Some people may be unable to urinate, and, in severe cases, a person can suffer respiratory failure and need to be put on a ventilator.
There is no treatment for AFM. Instead, people who are diagnosed with it are given “aggressive supportive care,” Adalja says. “It almost has to run its course and then you see where it settles out,” he adds.
Again, this is a rare condition. Since August 2014, the CDC has been notified of 362 cases of the illness, mostly in children.
The CDC recommends getting children vaccinated against poliovirus, as well as protecting against bites from mosquitos (which carry West Nile). It may also be helpful to wash your hands often with soap and water, the agency says.
As for why so many AFM cases have shown up in Minnesota in the past few weeks, Adalja says it may simply be due to a specific virus that’s circulating. “AFM is often tied to certain viruses, and a certain virus may be tracking in one area,” he explains.
While AFM is terrifying, Adalja says parents should not stay awake at night worrying about it. “This is a very rare condition,” he stresses.
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