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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 appears to be more prevalent this year among children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 50 cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) have been confirmed across 24 states, which is almost double what we saw last year.

Although the symptoms of AFM—a mystery muscle weakness similar to polio—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.

My three girls have already come home with colds, coughing, and sneezing, and just feeling junky. That is how most viruses will start. AFM, which is currently untreatable, is actually a very rare complication linked to a strain of enterovirus, which Dr. Fisher describes as an "annoying virus that comes along with different symptoms." They may manifest as typical flu-like symptoms, or as stomach symptoms with diarrhea and vomiting.

As NBC News reports, when in rare cases the enterovirus gets into the central nervous system, it may cause more serious symptoms, like inflammation of the brain and long-term paralysis. Again, it's very unlikely, but if your child is sick, Dr. Fisher says to look for any or all of these specific symptoms:

  • Very sudden lossof the use of an arm or leg
  • Facial droopiness
  • Slurred speech

If you do recognize these symptons, 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. But "don't panic at the first sign of viral illness," she advises.

Instead, 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.