CDC Issues Alert for Enterovirus D68, a Respiratory Virus That Can Lead To Polio-like Symptoms

The advisory is an alert for healthcare providers, not a cause for parents to panic. Here's what parents should know.

Measuring little boy's temperature
Photo: Getty

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an alert this month about a common childhood virus that can potentially cause muscle weakness and, in rare cases, result in paralysis.

In the health advisory, the CDC noted an uptick in pediatric hospitalizations for severe respiratory illness. These patients also tested positive for rhinovirus (RV) and/or enterovirus (EV). RVs and EVs can have similar symptoms. However, the CDC alert states that further review revealed that some specimens tested positive for enterovirus D68 (EV-D68).

It sounds like a lot of medical jargon—and it is. Put simply, EV-D68 is part of a larger family of enterovirus. Polio is also in this family. Muscle weakness is a side effect of EV-68 and polio.

In rare cases, EV-D68 can cause a condition known as acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). People with AFM experience inflammation in the neck region of the spine and sometimes have trouble moving their arms or weakness in one or all four of their limbs. These symptoms are similar to polio.

Children of any age can be affected, but the advisory notes that in 2018, the last time EV-D68 circulated widely, the average age for hospitalization was 3. During another outbreak in 2014, 10% of people developed AFM, and a full recovery is rare.

This news sounds scary—particularly in light of what we've gone through during the pandemic. But the purpose of the advisory is to notify healthcare providers about the increase in spread so they can consider it when assessing patients with symptoms.

Symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fever (in about half of known cases)

The CDC had found 84 cases between March and August of 2022, compared to 16 cases all of last year, though these numbers may be undercounts. As of September 2, the CDC had found 13 cases of AFM and is investigating 20 more.

There is no treatment or vaccine for RV or EV, including EV-D68. A separate polio vaccine is available.

RVs circulate all year but normally peak in the spring and fall, while EV is most common in the late summer and early fall. The CDC believes EV-D68 will peak during late summer and early fall and is advising healthcare providers to be vigilant.

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