CDC presses doctors for help in solving mysterious illness causing paralysis in children

By | July 10, 2019

“Federal health officials are urging doctors to quickly report any cases of a mysterious, polio-like illness that primarily hits children in an effort to understand the sickness before the next outbreak.

The illness, whose cause has perplexed government scientists, affected 233 patients in 41 states last year, and circulates primarily between August and October. It is known as acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, and leads to limb weakness that can become so severe that children need to be hooked up to a breathing machine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday called on doctors to quickly recognize the symptoms of the illness and to report them to their public health departments. On average, the CDC said it didn’t receive such reports until 18 days after the fact.

CDC has been tracking the illness since 2014, when at least 120 people became infected. The next outbreak occurred two years later, with 149 cases, and the highest tally was another two years later, in 2018, with the 233 cases. Despite being considered a seasonal outbreak, the illness can still occur in the off-season. So far this year, 11 people have been affected in eight states.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC, acknowledged that while the numbers were still small, doctors should be vigilant because they likely haven’t had to treat a child with the illness before.

“We hope today’s report will be a reminder to clinicians and parents that the season … is coming and that if a child has leg or arm weakness to get help right away,” she said in a call with reporters Tuesday.

Officials liken the illness to polio because it affects the nervous system in a similar way, weakening patients’ muscles and making it difficult for them to move. People who are infected develop a facial droop as well as slurred speech.

Studies in 2018 suggested that respiratory viruses may be to blame, but scientists don’t know why they might trigger AFM and aren’t sure why the cases become so severe in some people and not in others.

The CDC is partnering with seven hospitals this season and running a study with the National Institutes of Health, but they also are counting on doctors to help them get to the bottom of the issue.

“We are monitoring AFM trends and the clinical presentation, conducting research to identify possible risk factors, using advanced lab testing and research to understand how viral infections may lead to AFM, and tracking long-term outcomes of AFM patients,” said Dr. Tom Clark, deputy director at the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases.