Spike in U.S. Cases of Acute Flaccid Myelitis: What's the Deal?


Cases of acute flaccid mylelitis have spiked in the United States since 2014 and the Centers for Disease Control isn't sure why. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

There's nothing scarier for a parent than seeing their child struck with mysterious medical symptoms. Since 2014, hundreds of U.S. parents have experienced this frightening scenario play out as a result of one rare condition that's on the rise: acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)

The condition affects the spinal cord, and causes sudden weakness in the arms and legs. Though the condition remains exceptionally rare (less than one in a 1 million people in the United States get it annually), health officials have seen a spike in cases. From August 2014 through September 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) received information on 386 confirmed cases across the country, and most of these occurred in children.

There are a variety of possible causes for AFM, including certain viruses like poliovirus and West Nile virus. Because there's no single cause or surefire prevention/protection method, it's important to be extra vigilant about symptoms and take action right away if any develop. Some of the hallmark symptoms of AFM include:

  • Weakness and loss of muscle tone/reflexes in the arms and legs
  • Weakness or droopiness in the face
  • Difficulty with eye movement
  • Eyelid droopiness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Slurred speech

Even though experts haven't figured out all the reasons why AFM occurs, they have singled out a few prevention strategies that may help parents and children reduce their risks:

  • Stay up to date on polio vaccinations.
  • Use mosquito repellent, stay indoors at dusk and dawn, and remove stagnant or standing water near the home to prevent mosquito bites.
  • Experts aren't sure whether hand washing can help prevent AFM, but they still advise washing with soap and water after using the bathroom, before touching food, and before and after caring for a sick person.
  • Avoid contact with sick people and clean surfaces with disinfectant, especially those touched by a sick person.

The CDC is continuing to investigate the possible causes and solutions for AFM. So far they know that most of the people affected are children, and although symptoms most closely resemble complications of certain viral infections, all those with AFM have tested negative for poliovirus, and no pathogen (germ) has been consistently detected in patients' spinal fluid.

The CDC has yet to determine who is at greater risk for developing AFM, or the reasons why they may be more vulnerable, and long-term effects of the condition remain unknown. A statement from the CDC states, "we know that some patients diagnosed with AFM have recovered quickly, and some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care."

As the CDC works with physicians and health departments to increase awareness and further investigate the possible causes and risk factors of AFM, parents are advised to keep an eye out for symptoms and to seek immediate medical help if any arise. To stay up to date on the CDC's research into AFM, visit CDC's AFM in the United States website.


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