Home / Tech / Why You Keep Hearing About a Polio-Like ‘Mystery Illness’ Among Children

Why You Keep Hearing About a Polio-Like ‘Mystery Illness’ Among Children

Photo: Getty Images (Noctiluxx)

The CDC confirmed this week that 62 people, mainly children, have come down with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), an illness that weakens their arms and legs. But even though the symptoms are scary (they’ve been described as “polio-like,”) it’s a very rare disease and I promise you there’s no need to freak out. Doctors and scientists are still figuring out exactly what’s going on. Here are the facts we have right now:

How do we know these kids don’t have actual polio?

Because there’s a test for polio, and the CDC says everyone with AFM has, so far, tested negative for it.

What is polio, anyway?

Until the 1950s, when the first polio vaccines became available, polioviruses were fairly common in water and occasionally caused gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea and such). A small percentage of people who were infected with the poliovirus went on to develop serious complications including paralysis. If you’ve seen images of kids in black-and-white pictures wearing braces on their legs or sleeping in iron lungs, that’s polio.

Polio itself is rare today. There have only been a few dozen cases worldwide this year—some from the virus itself, and some from the vaccine, which is a whole nother story.

What are the symptoms?

There’s really just one scary symptom here: weakness and paralysis in the limbs. It comes on suddenly. An MRI (that machine where you lay down and it passes you through a giant magnetic donut) reveals damage to the gray matter of the spinal cord, and/or the fluid around the spinal cord contains a certain amount of infection-fighting white blood cells. (The CDC has a detailed definition here.)

What happens after that isn’t clear. The CDC says: “We know that some patients diagnosed with AFM have recovered quickly, and some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care.”

So far most of the cases have been in children, with an average age of 4.

What causes it?

Well, that’s the mysterious part. Nobody knows. Earlier this year, doctors found that AFM could be caused by Enterovirus D68, but now the CDC says that’s not enough to explain all of the cases they’ve seen. They’re testing the patients with AFM, but haven’t been able to find a virus that is common to all of them.

The symptoms of AFM are similar not just to polio, but also to rare complications of West Nile virus and other diseases.

Is this new?

Sort of. The first big uptick of AFM cases was in 2014, when there were 120 cases nationwide. The CDC says this may be related to an outbreak of enterovirus D68 around that time, but it’s not clear what’s happening this year.

What can I do to protect myself or my kids?

This is another mystery, because we still don’t know what causes it, and we don’t know who’s most at risk. The CDC suggests washing your hands and staying up to date on your vaccines, which are just good advice anyway.

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