Polio-like disease that's paralyzing kids now in Chicago, Pittsburgh

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The mysterious illness that’s paralyzing children is spreading across the United States, with cases popping up in both Chicago and Pittsburgh after initial reports from Minnesota. So far this year, 38 cases of acute flaccid myelitis have been reported in 16 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including Texas and Colorado.

Reports surfaced on Wednesday that two Chicago-area children are being treated at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago for the illness — including 2-year-old Julia Payne, who has been fighting the illness for nearly a month. Her parents told the Chicago Tribune that symptoms at first were on par with those of a common cold.

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh confirmed on Tuesday evening that three children suspected of having acute flaccid myelitis are being treated. “The patients are currently undergoing diagnostic procedures and treatment,” the hospital said in a statement to Pittsburgh’s Channel 11. “Isolation protocols and infection control procedures are in place and we’re working with the CDC and the Allegheny County Health Department to further monitor and evaluate the patient conditions.”

On Monday, news broke that six children in Minnesota have been infected with the rare disease that causes lowered mobility or paralysis in the arms and legs. The Minnesota 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.

Health officials are warning parents to be on the lookout for symptoms.

This disease affects the nervous system, specifically the area of a person’s spinal cord called gray matter, according to the 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.”

Acute flaccid myelitis is thought to happen after someone contracts a virus, like a 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 says. Some people may be unable to urinate, and, in severe cases, a person can suffer respiratory failure and must be put on a ventilator.

There is no treatment for this disease. 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. From August 2014 through August 2018, the CDC has been notified of 362 cases of the illness, mostly in children.

The CDC recommends getting children vaccinated against the poliovirus, as well as protecting against bites from mosquitos (which carry the West Nile virus). It may also be helpful to wash hands often with soap and water, the agency says.

Although acute flaccid myelitis 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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