Rare polio-like illness on the rise in children

A polio-like illness that primarily impacts children is on the rise across the United States.

Doctors say that it can start out just like a common cold. But shortly thereafter, strange and frightening symptoms, such as limb weakness, face drooping and difficulty talking or swallowing, set in. As limbs become weak, a patient might lose the ability to use their arms or legs.

The illness is called acute flaccid myelitis (also called AFM). It is a neurological condition that impacts the brain and the spinal cord, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no cure for AFM. Instead, doctors just focus on alleviating symptoms as best they can. It is believed that AFM can be contagious, and for this reason, isolation protocols are in place for patients who are confirmed to have the neurological illness.


“Most of the cases [of AFM] that CDC has learned about have been in children,” the CDC writes on its website. “This condition is not new, but the increase in cases we saw starting in 2014 is new.”

Indeed, there has been an uptick in cases of AFM across the country. For example, in Minnesota, cases of AFM were generally stagnant at about one case per year, but now six children have been confirmed to have AFM in 2018 alone. A 2-year-old girl was recently diagnosed in the Chicago area, and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh confirmed that three children are currently being treated for AFM at their facility.

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Experts aren’t sure what is causing the increase, but they know the numbers started to go up about four years ago in 2014. Since that time, more than 360 new cases of AFM were reported.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

And in 2018 alone, 38 new cases of AFM in 16 states across the country were confirmed by the CDC. These states include California, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. While the CDC says they do not know the cause of most cases of AFM, they do know that Poliovirus and West Nile virus can sometimes lead to AFM.

Additionally, the CDC has found a possible link between an increase in a respiratory virus and an increase of AFM.

“The increase in AFM cases in 2014 coincided with a national outbreak of severe respiratory illness among people caused by enterovirus D68 (EV-D68),” the CDC notes on its website. “Among the people confirmed with AFM, CDC did not consistently detect EV-D68 in every patient.”

Because of AFM’s possible roots in polio, doctors and medical health professionals are urging parents to stay up-to-date on their children’s vaccinations.

“You can protect yourself and your children from poliovirus by getting vaccinated,” the CDC advises. “While we don’t know if it is effective in preventing AFM, washing your hands often with soap and water is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to other people.”

The agency is also warning parents to be vigilant about protecting kids from mosquito bites because of the possible connection between West Nile virus and AFM. You can reduce the chance of mosquito bites by using insect repellent and keeping kids indoors during times when mosquitos are prevalent.


Despite these frightening cases of AFM, it’s important to remember that the condition continues to be rare. Fewer than 1 in 1 million people will contract AFM, even when these new numbers are taken into account. So, just be sure to practice smart prevention measures such as getting vaccinated, washing your hands and avoiding bug bites.

If your child has any symptoms of AFM (limb weakness, facial weakness/drooping, difficulty speaking or swallowing), seek medical attention right away.