Polio Epidemic Headed for California – Could it be True?
There are now four suspected cases of the rare polio-like disease, acute flaccid myelitis, under investigation in California, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. The mysterious disease, also known as AFM, causes sudden and unexplained paralysis, usually in children.
Federal health officials have confirmed 62 cases of AFM in the U.S. this year across 22 states, and there are 65 more under investigation, including the four possible cases in California. The state Department of Public Health is not releasing any information on the suspected cases, including locations and ages of patients yet.
This is the third time the nation has seen a spike in AFM cases. There was also an uptick in the disease in 2014 and in 2016, when 15 confirmed and 9 probable California cases were reported to the state’s department of public health between January and the end of September.
Children are the most vulnerable to the strange illness, with more than 90 percent of the confirmed cases occurring in kids 18 and younger, and the average age being 4 years old. The recent surge has CDC officials baffled, leading to a new campaign to raise awareness about the condition. Officials are urging parents to seek medical care if their child develops symptoms, so physicians can quickly relay reports of the potential illness to the CDC. The cause of the disease remains frustratingly unclear. There is no known cure.
“We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned about AFM,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the Washington Post. Despite extensive laboratory and other testing, the CDC has not been able to find the cause for the majority of the cases. “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.”
Here is what parents need to know: Acute flaccid myelitis affects the area of spinal cord called gray matter and can cause paralysis. The CDC has said the cause of most AFM cases is unknown, but a few cases have been linked to other viruses. There is no specific treatment and long-term implications are unknown.
“You shouldn’t panic,” says Dr. Sara Cody, public health director for Santa Clara county. “The first thing to remember is that it’s very rare so the chances of anyone getting it are very small.”
Parents should be on the lookout for any sudden muscle weakness in the arms and legs. Symptoms may also include drooping face and eyelids, difficulty with eye movement and swallowing and slurring of the speech. In severe cases, children might have trouble breathing.
“If your child seems to be having muscle weakness, seek medical care right away,” advises Cody.
There has only been one death reported from AFM, although there have been long-lasting negative effects such as paralysis. Although cases have been on the rise since 2014, AFM still only affects a very small population, less than one in a million people in the U.S. annually.
As far as we now know, the best steps to take to prevent the disease are simple. Stay current on vaccines, wear insect repellent and get your kids to wash their hands way more often than they want to. Cody adds that all of these are best practices that can stave off many illnesses, not just AFM, until researchers have more to report.
“We will get to the bottom of it,” says Cody. “Eventually we will have an explanation for it.”