There’s a mysterious, polio-like illness cropping up across the US. It’s called acute flaccid myelitis or AFM. It’s quite rare, affecting only one in one million people, but from January 1 to September 30, 2016, 89 people in 33 states were diagnosed with AFM, 37 in September alone. And in October, the death of a 6-year old boy is suspected to be the very first linked to the illness.
Those stats are alarming the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have put on a full-court press to study the disorder. They don’t know for sure yet what causes it, but they suspect it might be a viral infection.
AFM has been linked to a variety of germs, including enteroviruses, West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne viruses (but not Zika), cytomegalovirus and adenoviruses. Researchers are also looking at the possible role of environmental toxins, genetic factors, autoimmune diseases and Guillain-Barré syndrome. AFM is highly infectious, but it is not contagious.
Like polio, which has been nearly eradicated in the US with the introduction of a vaccine, AFM attacks the body’s nervous system, primarily the spinal cord. It is sudden onset and has symptoms similar to polio, but there’s no vaccine for AFM. It can occur in adults, but 90 percent of cases occur in children.
Sudden weakness in the arms or legs is the symptom that generally alerts parents to a problem. Other symptoms of AFM include loss of muscle tone and reflexes, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping facial muscles and eyelids, difficulty swallowing and slurred speech. In severe cases, the breathing muscles are affected, leading to respiratory failure and the need for a breathing tube.
AFM can look like a lot of other conditions, so it’s a challenge to diagnose. However, trained physicians can detect it through a careful physical exam and review of symptoms, an MRI and lab tests. The sudden weakness is a tipoff, but the MRI can show abnormalities in the tissue of the spinal cord suggestive of AFM.
As of now, there are no treatments specifically for AFM. The best doctors can do is treat the symptoms and make the patient as comfortable as possible. There is a wide spectrum to the disease. Some people recover from AFM with little or no disability, but others remain severely disabled with complete paralysis in their arms and legs.
As for prevention, physicians recommend parents and children maintain good overall preventive health care practices. You need to do everything you can to keep your immune system strong and reduce your risk for any type of infection that might leave you vulnerable to AFM. Here are a few steps to follow to keep yourself and your family safer:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially before touching food and after going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, changing a baby’s diaper and playing with or cleaning up after your pet.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and clean surfaces with a disinfectant, especially surfaces touched by someone who is sick.
- Protect yourself from mosquito bites. When outdoors, wear mosquito repellant, long pants and long-sleeved shirts to shield your skin from bites.
- Be sure you and your family are up-to-date on all recommended vaccinations, and remember to get the appropriate vaccines before you travel outside of the country.
While the CDC and others are looking for more clues about the nature of AFM, let’s keep our families and ourselves as healthy as possible. Hopefully, researchers can discover just what causes this disabling illness and find effective treatments for those who have it. Maybe someday, this polio-like disease will get its own vaccine!