Pediatric acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a rare neurological condition that affects the spinal cord, causing muscle loss and slow reflexes.
The disease has been compared to polio because it primarily affects children and can cause paralysis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last Tuesday reported a sharp uptick in the number of AFM cases, confirming 62 of 127 suspected cases in 22 states so far this year.
The average patient is just four years old.
The CDC began tracking AFM in 2014. Cases have been on the rise ever since, with annual spikes in August or September. Spikes have been highest in 2014, 2016, and 2018.
Earlier this month, the agency said it would start recording suspected cases in addition to confirmed cases in order to learn more about the disease and to raise awareness.
“We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned about AFM,” says CDC official Nancy Messonnier. “There is a lot we don’t know about AFM, and I am frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness.”
While most cases of AFM occur following a fever or respiratory illness, the exact cause of the disease remains unclear.
Doctors also don’t know how to prevent AFM, how it spreads, or what factors might increase a person’s risk of developing it. The only treatment for AFM is physical therapy.
What researchers have been able to determine is that AFM is not connected to West Nile virus, poliovirus, or vaccinations.
The only treatment for AFM is intense physical therapy. Some patients make a full recovery, while others require ongoing care.
The CDC has encouraged parents to look for the following symptoms:
- Facial droop/drooping eyelids
- Loss of muscle tone
- Slow reflexes
- Sudden weakness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Slurred speech
It’s important for parents to remember that AFM is incredibly rare, affecting less than 1 in 1 million children. “As a parent myself, I understand what it’s like to be scared for your child,” says Messonnier. “Parents need to know that AFM is rare even with the increase in cases we are seeing now.”
While it is unclear how parents can prevent their children from developing AFM, doctors recommend basic healthy habits like washing hands and disinfecting toys and other frequently touched items and surfaces.
Due to privacy concerns, the CDC has decided not to make public the states in which the disease has been reported.