After an alarming uptick this winter, the number of confirmed cases of a mysterious, polio-like illness in the U.S. has hit a record high, according to the CDC.
The illness, acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, is a rare neurological condition that causes slowed reflexes and weakness of the muscles and limbs. Beginning in 2014, the U.S. has seen an increased number of AFM cases, with 90% of these confirmed cases affecting children aged 18 or younger. So far in 2018, there have been 158 confirmed cases of AFM in 36 states.
In November, the CDC formed a task force to study the disease after it left dozens of American children paralyzed—closely resembling symptoms of polio, the dreaded viral illness that once affected tens of thousands of American children. Since AFM affects the spinal cord, health experts are investigating pathogens that could be in the fluid surrounding the spinal cord – particularly the presence of certain coxsackieviruses—as a possible cause of the disease. As of this report, the CDC has detected coxsackievirus A16, EV-A71, and EV-D68 in the spinal fluid of four confirmed AFM cases. For all other patients with the disease, no such germs have been found in the spinal fluid.
Before being diagnosed with AFM, more than 90% of patients exhibited mild respiratory illness or fever consistent with a viral infection. Other factors could trigger onset of AFM, such as a patient’s immune response to an infection or a genetic factor that may make them more susceptible.
In addition to limb weakness and loss of reflexes, patients with AFM have experienced slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, facial droop, and difficulty breathing.
While some children diagnosed with AFM have fully recovered, most have not. The CDC task force will conduct an ongoing investigation to define the cause of, and improve treatment and outcomes for, patients with AFM, bringing together experts from various scientific, medical, and public health fields to focus on this disease.
“This Task Force will ensure that the full capacity of the scientific community is engaged and working together to provide important answers and solutions to actively detect, more effectively treat, and ultimately prevent AFM and its consequences,” said Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director of the CDC.