Mysterious illness that paralyzes healthy kids prompts plea from CDC

Enlarge / 13-year-old boy recovering in a Denver hospital from a suspected case of human enterovirus 68 during a 2014 outbreak. (credit: Getty | Cyrus McCrimmon)

After a record number of cases in 2018 of a rare, puzzling illness that causes paralysis in otherwise healthy kids, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging doctors to hasten reporting and boost data collection before the next big wave of illness hits—which is expected in 2020.

The illness is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, and is marked by the sudden onset of limb weakness (usually upper limb), paralysis, and spinal lesions seen on MRI scans. It most often occurs in children. It’s unclear what causes it and why instances are increasing—though officials suspect that a relative of poliovirus is involved. There is no specific treatment, and doctors can’t predict how affected patients will fare; some regain muscle strength and recover full use of paralyzed limbs over time, some don’t. In rare cases, AFM can cause respiratory failure and death.

AFM first gained attention in 2014, when health officials noted a spike in the polio-like condition nationwide and began carefully documenting cases. Since then, health officials have seen a distinct every-other-year pattern to the illness.

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