Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM), a rare, mysterious, sometimes deadly, neurological disease, is beginning to alarm U.S. public health officials, as it has been striking more and more kids.
“It may bear similarities to polio, which smoldered among humans for centuries before it exploded into fearsome epidemics in the 19th and 20th centuries,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Fauci published the report about AFM Tuesday in the peer-reviewed open access scientific journal, mBio. He explained that it is unlikely AFM will be as bad as polio, which affected numerous children in the U.S. every year before a vaccine was available in 1950.
Although there have been reported cases of AFM in other countries such as France, Canada, Norway, and Britain, the U.S. outbreak has been more pronounced. In more than 10 years, the disease has affected nearly 550 Americans. Over 90 percent of them were children aged 4, 5, or 6, while the oldest one was 32 years of age.
Those who were affected by AFM had symptoms of fever, cold-like illness, which then descended into paralysis. Some experienced numbness of a thumb, while some went on to lose their ability to breathe and eat.
Many parents say their kids were able to regain some movement in the affected limbs; however, there were no stories of complete recovery. Public health officials were not able to find out how many recovered completely, or how many have died, although the CDC says deaths caused by AFM are rare.
Researchers suspect the disease is being caused mainly by a certain virus, which was identified more than five decades ago. They opine the virus might have mutated to become more dangerous; however, they are yet to prove that.
While medical experts recommend antiviral drugs, antibiotics, steroids, and a blood-cleansing procedure, the CDC says it is not clear whether they really work. Many researchers agree that physical therapy can make a difference when it comes to treating AFM.
Scientists feel that the main culprit is EV-D68, an enterovirus. Enteroviruses are a large family of viruses, including polio, can have a negative impact on the central nervous system.
In the U.S., physicians started reporting respiratory illnesses associated with EV-D68 in 1987. The first real AFM case hit in 2014 when 120 were confirmed, with the largest concentrations in Colorado and California.
AFM cases dropped to 22 in 2015, jumped to 149 in 2016, dropped to 35 in 2017, and reached to 228 in 2018, which may grow in the near future. Just four cases are confirmed this year, so far.
CDC health officials consider the diagnosis of AFM based on scans and other investigations showing some sort of damage to the spinal cord. So far, CDC examiners have been able to identify enteroviruses in the cerebrospinal fluid of only four cases out of 558 confirmed cases. Meanwhile, the CDC is trying to put a greater focus on the ailment. In fact, the officials have started holding meetings and setting up a scientific task force to pay attention to the cases more closely.