Not too long ago we wrote about the recent and fairly rare development of a Polio-like, paralyzing illness that nearly 600 children have been diagnosed with since the first reported case in 2012. The virus is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, and larger outbreaks have been occurring every year since its discovery. One of the scariest and most frustrating parts is that the disease had stumped researchers and doctors alike – but a recent study has identified a possible culprit: a virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), AFM is a serious condition that affects the central nervous system – specifically the “gray matter” area of the spinal cord – which then causes the body’s reflexes and muscles to weaken. The condition often results in paralysis, and two of the most common symptoms are:
Acute flaccid myelitis typically begins presenting with simple cold symptoms, and then paralysis rapidly begins setting in. The CDC reports that more than 90% of patients first presented with mild respiratory illnesses or fevers consistent with viral infections before they developed AFM. The condition is sometimes accompanied by other symptoms, too. Some of these include a difficulty moving the eyes, facial droop or weakness, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, pain in the arms or legs, and difficulty swallowing.
Observing symptoms like these in a child can be frightening, but if you do it is important to seek medical attention right away. Some of the more rare complications associated with AFM include respiratory failure (due to a weakening of the muscles involved in breathing) and serious neurological complications that can potentially lead to death. At the moment, there is no specific treatment for AFM but monitoring the condition and having a healthcare provider determine possible medical interventions is still critical.
The good news is that doctors and researchers are making some big advancements when it comes to understanding the causes behind AFM. In a new study, researchers began analyzing patient’s spinal fluid. Why? Because spinal fluid shows signs of the body fighting off viruses trying to attack it. And in this case, researchers found that young patients had large amounts of antibodies used to fight off enteroviruses. Enteroviruses are a family of viruses typically occurring in the gastrointestinal tract, though they can also spread to the central nervous system and other parts of the body.
Although the findings are not 100% conclusive, the study’s authors say they are a big step in the right direction. Dr. Riley Bove, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of the study said: “Nailing down a suspect is key to better diagnosis and eventually finding a way to prevent or treat an illness. If you don’t have a cause, you can’t have a vaccine.” Researchers are certain that a germ entering the body or the body’s reaction to the germ itself is what causes AFM, so these recent findings are particularly hopeful.
Acute flaccid myelitis cases tend to spike between the late summer and early fall months, and doctors are already worried about the possible severity of next year’s outbreak. In light of the study’s findings, researchers now hope to narrow down what viruses are causing the disease and come up with effective vaccination options for protecting children (though some adults develop AFM as well) from the serious and sometimes deadly complications.
As this story continues to develop we will keep our readers updated.
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