CDC Investigates Cases Of Rare Neurological 'Mystery Illness' In Kids

Kenny Tucker
October 18, 2018

The surge has baffled health officials, who on Tuesday announced a change in the way the agency is counting cases.

A spike in the number of children with a rare neurological disease that causes polio-like symptoms has health officials across the country scrambling to understand the illness.

"We have not been able to find a cause for the majority of these AFM cases", Messonnier admitted.

The number of cases in 2018 is on track to match a similar number of cases in 2014 and 2016. One child with the disorder died in 2017.

The average age of children is about 4, she said, and 90 percent of cases the CDC has been studying since 2014 have involved children 18 or younger.

The long-term effects are unknown.

AFM is an illness that affects the nervous system, specifically the area of spinal cord called gray matter. The CDC still has not pin-pointed exactly what's causing this disorder, but they suspect a virus that circulates this time of the year.

In an email Tuesday, Maryland Department of Health spokeswoman Brittany Fowler said the CDC will "make a determination about the status of the cases" in Maryland "based on clinical and laboratory information". Maryland's first case was reported September 21.

Lacking an established cause, health officials confirm cases through a review of brain scans and symptoms.

Most people infected with enteroviruses suffer only minor symptoms like cough and runny nose.

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Some patients recover quickly, while others experience paralysis and require ongoing care. Fifteen states said they'd confirmed cases this year.

It's too early to know whether the total for 2018 will surpass those previous years.

More broadly, she noted, "there is a lot we don't know about AFM".

Messonnier stressed that while she understands how frightening this situation is for parents, they should remember that the infections are, in fact, rare. "I encourage parents to seek medical care right way if you or your child develops sudden weakness or loss of muscle tone in arms and legs".

Messonnier said the search for a cause is frustrating, and so far, no particular pathogen or immune response has been identified that would explain the big AFM peaks.

Acute flaccid myelitis can be caused by viruses, such as polio or West Nile. Those officials are probing another 65 illnesses in those states. Most of the cases have been in children. There have been cases each year since, but the numbers have been higher on alternate years.

The CDC said it doesn't know how long symptoms of the disease will last for patients.

But the agency doesn't know who may be at higher risk nor why they may be at higher risk.

She said that CDC has tested every stool specimen from AFM patients. But Messonnier said that, in general, parents can help protect their children from diseases by washing their hands, making sure their children are up to date with vaccinations and applying insect repellent to protect against mosquito bites, which can spread viruses.

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