By: Eric Levene, MD, Chester Pediatrics (White Plains, New York) (updated 11/18/19)
A rare neurological disease called Acute Flaccid Myelitis or AFM has made news recently as children are hospitalized with varying degrees of paralysis. The CDC estimates 1 in 1 million people will be affected, mostly children. The condition is not new but there has been an increase in reported cases since 2014. From August 2014 to September 2018 there were 386 confirmed cases of AFM in the United States, with most cases reported in the late spring and fall. The cause of AFM is still not completely known.
The CDC describes AFM as “rare but serious condition”. AFM affects the nervous system causing the muscles of the body to become weak. Most cases occur with sudden weakness of an arm or leg with loss of muscle tone. Some cases will have facial droop, difficulty moving eyes or difficulty swallowing. The most serious symptom occurs when the muscles that involve breathing are involved.
AFM may be difficult to diagnose, it shares similar symptoms as other neurologic diseases. There is no specific test or scan that will diagnose the illness. As soon as a parent/guardian may think their child might have symptoms, they should contact their doctor. The doctor may refer the patient to a neurologist or Pediatric Emergency Room for further testing and evaluation.
AFM actual cause is still under investigation, but most of the evidence is supporting a viral cause. Over 90% of the affected patient had a mild respiratory illness and or fever consistent with a viral illness prior to developing the symptoms of AFM
There is no specific treatment for AFM, but a neurologist may recommend certain treatments on a case-by-case basis. Usual recommendations include physical or occupational therapy to help with arm or leg weakness caused by AFM. Long-term outcomes of affected individuals with AFM are still unknown.
What can you do to prevent AFM. Nothing specific can prevent AFM. However, taking the usual precautions to stop the spread of illness is your best bet. Washing your hands with soap and water or using topical antibacterials hand sanitizers is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to other people.