155 Possible Cases of Polio-Like Condition in 2018 Outbreak

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
October 23, 2018US News

Federal officials have received reports of 155 possible cases of a polio-like condition that can cause paralysis, known as acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM.

The latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that 28 more suspected cases have been reported by state health departments since the previous update about a week ago, bringing the total number of possible cases to 155.

So far, 62 cases have been confirmed across 22 states this year, a number that remains unchanged.

The CDC said that it’s working with state and local health departments to investigate the possible cases.

cdc afm cases reported graph

The 2018 outbreak isn’t as large as the number of confirmed cases in 2016, with 149 cases confirmed that year. In addition, 120 cases were confirmed in 2014 between August and December. That outbreak coincided with a national outbreak of severe respiratory illness.

But officials aren’t sure why exactly the condition started showing up around the country in 2014 and why it’s continuing. Most of the cases have been children.

The condition can be caused by polio, the West Nile virus, and other viruses, officials believe.

“At this moment, we don’t know if it’s a virus that is coming and producing direct damage of the gray matter in the spinal cord, or if a virus is triggering immunological responses that produce a secondary damage in the spinal cord,” Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, a neurological disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who recently authored a paper on AFM, told Kaiser Health News.

While it’s a worrying condition, it affects less than one in a million people in the United States each year.

“We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters earlier this month. “There is a lot we don’t know about AFM, and I am frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness.”

“As a parent myself I understand what it’s like to be scared for your child,” she added. “Parents need to know that AFM is very rare, even with the increase in cases that we are seeing now. We recommend seeking medical care right away if you or your child develop sudden weakness of the arms and legs.”

More cases of polio-like virus reported
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 62 cases of a polio-like illness that causes weakness in the legs and arms. (CNN)

What Is AFM?

The rare but serious condition affects people’s nervous system, particularly the area of the spinal cord called gray matter.

The condition causes people’s muscles and reflexes to weaken significantly, usually in one or more of their limbs. Symptoms most often include a sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes.

Some people also experience facial droop or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, difficulty with swallowing, or slurred speech.

The best prevention is getting the polio vaccination, which helps protect against the polio virus. That virus has been identified as one cause of AFM.

People should also try to not get bitten by mosquitos—especially in countries where the mosquitos carry the West Nile virus—by using repellent, staying indoors at dusk and dawn, and removing standing or stagnant water near where they’re living.

Unfortunately, there’s no specific treatment developed for AFM, but doctors who specialize in treating brain and spinal cord illnesses may be able to recommend certain treatments on a case-by-case basis.

There is no long-term prognosis for people who get infected with AFM. Some patients experience long-term paralysis requiring long-term care while others may fully recover, according to Pardo-Villamizar.

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