U.S. health officials are warning U.S residents of a sharp increase in the number of children paralyzed by a mysterious polio-like illness called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM).
The recent surge of AFM cases has reached 50 so far this year, more than double the number of cases reported last year, stoking concerns that an outbreak is shaping up. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the illness was first detected in August 2014. By December, the number of cases confirmed swelled to 120 across 34 states.
“With the sharp rise in cases already confirmed this year, 50 across 24 states, experts fear that an outbreak this year could be worse than before,” the CDC said.
AFM affects the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord, and can result from viral infections and a variety of other causes. The illness is characterized by a sudden weakness in one or more arms or legs, along with loss of muscle tone and decreased or absent reflexes. Numbness or pain in the arms or legs may also occur. In some cases, dysfunction of the nerves controlling the head and neck, resulting in such features as facial weakness, difficulty swallowing, or drooping of the eyes, may accompany the limb weakness.
Anyone can develop AFM, although the CDC says that children seem to be most prone to it. A child with the illness can suffer severe respiratory problems resulting in difficulty breathing, swallowing, and in urgent cases, requiring a ventilator machine.
Although CDC researchers do not know what causes AFM or how it can be prevented, they do believe it is linked somehow with viral infections, such as Enterovirus, poliovirus, and West Nile virus, all of which have been documented in some AFM cases.
The CDC asks health care providers to be aware of AFM and its symptoms and remain vigilant for signs of it among their patients. Any suspected cases should be reported to their state health department.