The CDC is investigating over 100 possible cases of the disease.

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Experts don’t know what causes the disease that can lead to muscle weakness or difficulty breathing. Getty Images

An illness that affects the nervous system and causes muscle weakness has been diagnosed in dozens of children around the country.

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a total of 62 confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) have been diagnosed in 22 states.

This year a total of 127 cases of AFM have been confirmed or are under investigation in the United States, according to the CDC.

The rare disease causes symptoms similar to polio and affects the spinal cord.

In Minnesota, six young patients have been diagnosed with AFM and the disease has public health officials on alert.

Kristen Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control at the Minnesota Department of Health, told Healthline, “it’s very concerning.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, AFM is classified as a rare disease. It tends to develop in children more than adults.

A main symptom of AFM is the onset of sudden muscle weakness in the arms and legs. Other symptoms include:
  • facial weakness
  • drooping of the eyelids
  • difficulty swallowing, speaking, or moving the eyes

The most serious complication of AFM is respiratory failure. That occurs if the muscles involved with breathing become weakened.

Health officials don’t have an exact cause of AFM. The CDC says the main culprit can be a virus, environmental toxins, or genetic disorders. Certain viruses that can cause AFM or similar neurologic conditions include polio, West Nile, and adenoviruses.

“In terms of the diseases I usually deal with, say if it’s measles, we know the incubation period, we know the infectious period. In this cases it’s unknown,” Ehresmann said. “You can’t tie it up in a neat bow.”

According to the CDC, there’s been a mild uptick in the number of AFM cases in the country since 2014.

From August 2014 through September 2018, the agency has received information on a total of 362 cases of AFM across the United States.

“Most of the cases continue to occur in children,” according to its website. This year to date there are about 38 cases nationwide, 16 states in all.

In 2014, the CDC determined that the AFM cases in 2014 occurred during a national outbreak of children with enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), according to Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC.

“However, the CDC did not consistently detect EV-D68 in every child with confirmed AFM,” he told Healthline in an email. “The data on the recently reported cluster of cases of AFM will have to be carefully evaluated to better understand the role of EV-D68 in this new outbreak.”

Right now, it’s unclear what has caused the AFM cases in Illinois, Colorado, and Pittsburgh. Ehresmann said Minnesota public health officials have linked their outbreak to a virus, but haven’t determined the exact name.

They also know that all six children developed the disease around the same time. But the kids don’t go to the same school, nor are they located near each other.

“The cases are from all over the state,” Ehresmann said.

There’s no way to determine which child will development AFM, according to Glatter.

“At this time we don’t have a way to determine which children may be at an elevated risk for developing AFM, or the underlying explanation that predisposes them to develop AFM in the first place,” he said. “The search for a biomarker from the blood or cerebrospinal fluid would be helpful to identify those at elevated risk.”

Like other neurological diseases, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, physical therapy or occupational therapy are the only treatment options for people with AFM. Glatter said the long-term effects of AFM are unclear at this time.

“While some patients have recovered rapidly, others have remain paralyzed and require a high level of ongoing care to support their breathing and monitor for neurological deterioration,” he said.

The news of a poliolike disease spreading around a state or across the country is unsettling news to many parents.

But both Glatter and Ehresmann were quick to reiterate that AFM is very rare. Right now the CDC says the likelihood of someone developing AFM is 1 in 1 million.

Still, both stated because there isn’t a clear picture of which children may be at risk for developing AFM, parents should be observant for any changes if their child should get sick.

“Parents need to remain vigilant for signs of muscular weakness or difficulty breathing that develop during and after recovery from an upper respiratory infection,” Glatter said.

Ehresmann noted that the sudden onset of muscle weakness is the most obvious sign.

“If you see that in your child, it’s important to get them to a health provider right away,” she said.

Ehresmann also noted that now that school is in session and cold weather months are coming, it’s more crucial than ever that people maintain strict hygiene habits. Make sure your children wash their hands, make sure you wash your hands, and cough into your elbow.

“It’s not really highly exciting stuff,” she said, “but it’s a good reminder of things you can do on a daily basis.”