Here's Everything You Need to Know About a Rare Polio-Like Illness on the Rise Among Kids

Acute flaccid myelitis is exceedingly rare, but can cause lifelong paralysis, so it should be taken seriously. We talked to an expert to find out what parents need to know about AFM.
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A seemingly random and very scary virus that can cause lifelong paralysis has been on the rise since 2014, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And now Minnesota state officials report that six children has been infected with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) within the last few weeks, and all have been younger than 10 years old.

Although the symptoms of AFM—an illness similar to polio that affects the spinal cord—come on very suddenly, it's important that parents don't panic, says Danelle Fisher, M.D., chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and a mom to a 4-year-old son. "Most viral illnesses are almost always benign," Dr. Fisher tells Parents.com. Parents shouldn't be overly concerned, she adds, but vigilance is key, especially since viruses tend to run rampant this time of year when kids go back to school and temperatures dip.

AFM, which is currently untreatable, is actually a very rare complication that affects about one in a million people. It’s linked to environmental toxins, genetic disorders, poliovirus, West Nile Virus, adenoviruses, and a strain of enterovirus, which Dr. Fisher describes as an "annoying virus that comes along with different symptoms." Oftentimes, however, the cause of AFM is unknown.

Symptoms of AFM include:

  • Very sudden loss of the use of an arm or leg

  • Lose of reflexes

  • Facial droopiness

  • Slurred speech and difficulty swallowing

In extreme cases, the CDC says AFM may cause respiratory failure, since it causes the muscles involved in breathing to become weak.

If you do recognize any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately. More than anything, Dr. Fisher says, "parents should use gut instinct." Most kids are going to get over a virus in a few days. But if your child is acting really sick, or doesn't seem like him or herself, and the illness is interfering with daily activities, or he or she can't sleep, contact your pediatrician.

Parents should also focus on ways to keep your family healthy. Encourage hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and keep kids home from school if they are sick. Also, avoid being around sick people, as viruses are easily passed on via coughs, sneezes, and touching infected surfaces.

Dr. Fisher recommends parents take note of the prevalence of AFM where they live; for now, we are seeing scattered reports rather than a cluster of cases like doctors noted in 2014 when a polio-like illness paralyzed 120 kids. The CDC's site is a good resource for information, as is the American Academy of Pediatrics site, and your child's pediatrician.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.

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