In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to get reports of a mysterious and debilitating illness that was affecting children. Called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM), this rare disease impacts the nervous system, primarily the spinal cord. The cause of the disorder is still not known, and according to the CDC, “less than one in a million people in the United States get AFM each year.” Researchers will be keeping a close eye on this situation.
So far in 2018, the CDC has confirmed 38 cases of AFM that happened in 16 states. In 2015 and 2017, there were around the same number of confirmed cases (22 and 33, respectively), but in 2014 and 2016, incidences spiked, with over one hundred patients in both of those years (120 and 149, respectively). Because there isn’t much data on AFM, scientists are still not sure how to interpret this information. They also aren’t sure whether it’s significant that cases tend to spike in late summer and early fall.
AFM is causing an illness that is like the health complications that come from other viral infections, including West Nile virus and poliovirus. Although an investigation has found that in 2014, many affected individuals were also carrying a respiratory virus called enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), no microbial pathogen has been consistently observed in the spinal fluid of patients. Researchers are expecting to find the cause in that fluid because that’s where the disease seems to be starting.
Patients exhibit neurological symptoms, like drooping eyelids, facial weakness, slurred speech or trouble swallowing, or sudden weakness in the legs and arms. Doctors stress that getting these kids into the clinic as soon as possible is important. For now, treating the illness is only about addressing the symptoms, since we don’t know what's causing it.
“If you have a child that is having these kinds of symptoms, they should be seen, evaluated, immediately,” said Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health. There have been six children under age ten that have been diagnosed and hospitalized in Minnesota so far this year; they normally see one case in that time.
The CDC recommends that people stay vigilant as they would for any infectious disease. Make sure your hands are washed thoroughly, especially when handling food or eating, keep current on your vaccinations, and don’t spread your sickness around - stay home if you don’t feel good.