Rare polio-like illness spreading among children across the nation: what local doctors want parents to know

Rare polio-like illness spreading among children across the nation: what local doctors want parents

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Across the nation, we are seeing more cases of a rare polio-like illness in children called “Acute Flaccid Myelitis,” or AFM for short. This illness can cause paralysis in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now investigating 127 possible cases of the illness in 22 states. So far, 62 cases have been confirmed, with one case here in South Carolina.

AFM attacks the nervous system, more specifically the spinal cord, and can cause muscles and reflexes in the body to suddenly become weak. For some children, that weakness can turn into paralysis. Doctors stress, however, AFM is extremely rare.

Pediatrician at Conway Medical Center, Dr. Hayley Guilkey, said so far she hasn't seen or heard of any cases make its way into Horry County. Dr. Guilkey says AFM can be triggered in some kids by common viruses and can initially appear to be flu-like symptoms.

“It can start with a fever, or a respiratory virus, vomiting, diarrhea, that type of thing. That usually resolves, in a few days to a week, to a couple weeks later. A child usually develops within hours weakness in one of their limbs. Other symptoms that are seen include neck weakness, double vision, facial weakness, and other neurologic symptoms like that,” said Dr. Guilkey. “We know that it usually comes after an illness, like a respiratory illness, or a stomach illness or a fever. It usually comes maybe a week after that so we know that, or we think that, it might be related to the viruses. We don’t know whether it’s actually directly caused by the virus, or it could be your body’s immune system reacting to the virus and causing the limb weakness and the neurologic changes.”

Other symptoms of AFM include sudden arm or leg weakness, difficulty moving facial muscles, slurred speech, or trouble swallowing. Although the CDC is reporting a rise in cases since 2014, they estimate the illness affects less than one in a million people in our country a year.

“So not a lot is known about it. The way it’s diagnosed is a child will have acute onset of limb weakness, usually one limb, but it could be more than one, and then when they’re examined with an MRI, or studied with an MRI, they find changes in the gray matter in the child in the nervous system,” said Dr. Guilkey.

There’s currently no cure for the virus and officials aren’t sure how it spreads or why there’s been a recent up-tick in cases. But the CDC is saying it could be viral, environmental or genetic. Doctors say it can be difficult to diagnose because it mirrors many other neurologic diseases, like Polio. Therefore, doctors are administering steroids and IV’s and having patients go through physical therapy as a way of recovery.

With one confirmed case of the illness in South Carolina, pediatricians are urging parents to make sure kids are practicing good hygiene and keeping up with vaccinations as flu season begins.

“My best guess is if it is a virus that’s causing it, children get more viruses than adults. You know if they’re in daycare or in school. And also, adults have already been exposed to a lot of the viruses, so they do have a better immune response to them,” said Dr. Guilkey. “I think that the worst-case scenario that we’re seeing, one it can lead to respiratory failure, requiring kids to be intubated and needing a breathing tube in order to breathe. And also, the long term consequences of maybe not fully recovering all the strength in your limbs.”

Despite its similarities to Polio, there’s currently no vaccine for AFM.

“I think not enough is known about it, so we don’t even know what’s even causing it. So, we can’t make a vaccine that would prevent it without knowing what exactly is causing it. In addition, because we don’t know exactly what’s happening, it’s hard to find a way to treat it,” said Dr. Guilkey.

If you do notice your child developing any symptoms a week or two following a respiratory virus, it’s recommended to visit the doctor’s office or ER immediately.

“Usually kids will have those symptoms, like a virus, a stomach bug, or a cold. And then a week or two later after that’s resolved, then they will develop the symptoms of AFM,” said Dr. Guilkey.

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