Across the US, there are 127 confirmed or suspected cases of a rare-polio like illness, the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) revealed on Tuesday.
Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, says 62 cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) have been confirmed across 22 states.
Previously, the agency had reported that there were 38 confirmed cases of the mysterious virus in 16 states.
Meanwhile, another 65 cases are under investigation for AFM, whose symptoms start off resembling those of a common cold and affecting children at an average age of four years old.
Health officials have determined the condition is caused by a viral infection, but they have been unable to determine the specific virus it is linked to.
‘We have not been able to find the cause of the majority of AFM cases…and we’re frustrated that we haven’t been able to identify the cause of illness,’ Dr Messonnier said in a media call.
WHAT IS AFM?
AFM is a rare, but serious condition that affects the nervous system. Specifically it attacks the area of spinal cord called gray matter, which causes the body’s muscles and reflexes to weaken.
Symptoms often develop after a viral infection, such as enterovirus or West Nile virus, but often no clear cause is found.
Patients start off having flu-like symptoms including sneezing and coughing. This slowly turns into muscle weakness, difficulty moving the eyes and then polio-like symptoms including facial drooping and difficulty swallowing.
‘If [AFM affects gray matter] lower in the spinal cord [paralysis will] be more in the legs and if it’s higher up, it’ll be more in the arms,’ Dr Fernando Acosta, a pediatric neurologist at Cook Children’s Medical Center, in Fort Worth, Texas, told Daily Mail Online in an interview on Monday.
‘Or if it’s closer to the neck, they they can’t move head, neck and shoulders. We had one case of that and that was just awful.’
In the most severe cases, respiratory failure can occur when the muscles that support breathing become weak.
In rare cases, AFM can cause neurological complications that could lead to death.
‘It’s a pretty dramatic disease; children have a sudden onset of weakness,’ said Dr Messonier.
No specific treatment is available for AFM and interventions are generally recommended on a case-by-case basis.
Children with weakness in their arms or legs may attend physical or occupational therapy.However, physicians admit they are unaware of the long-term outcomes for those with AFM.
This year, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries where cases of wild poliovirus have been confirmed – largely due to poor sanitation and low levels of vaccination coverage.
However, global eradication is now at risk due to vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV) in five countries in Africa this year.
Health experts say that this could result in silent transmission of both polio and AFM because it can lead to paralysis if left undetected.
Anti-vaxxers have blamed childhood polio vaccines for the outbreak, despite physicians saying there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.
‘There is no evidence vaccines are causing this,’ said Dr Acosta.
‘And if we identify the agent that is causing, the the next step would be to develop a vaccine. It’s the same reason, we developed flu vaccines – to lessen the burden of disease.
‘The reason why you see lower rates of polio, whooping cough and other diseases is because we have vaccines that have made them very rare.’
HOW CAN YOU PROTECT YOURSELF?
The CDC advises getting vaccinated against Poliovirus and West Nile Virus due to both being potential causes of AFM.
Health experts say this does not simply mean just staying up-to-date with vaccinations but also minimizing exposure to mosquitoes.
Additionally, you can use warm water and soap to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.
‘It’s a one-in-million chance to get this so it’s extremely unlikely your child will get this,’ said Dr Acosta.
‘Even if they have sudden onset of weakness, AFM is unlikely to have caused it. It’s more likely to be a stroke. However, if your child develops it, bring them in and this gives them best chance of survival.’