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AFM: The Polio-Like Mystery Illness

Since 2014, federal health officials have confirmed over 500 cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) in the United States―a very rare but serious illness that can cause sudden polio-like symptoms such as weak muscles and paralysis. Most of these cases have been in children around 5 years old.

A spike in AFM cases in 2018 was similar to those in 2016 and 2014. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating all AFM cases. A common thread linking the cases has not been found; although, most occurred in late summer and early fall.

While this sounds frightening, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reminds parents that AFM is very rare. The chances of a child getting it are less than one in a million.

How to protect your children:

The best thing you can do to protect your children from getting sick is to keep up with what you are already doing.

Immediately seek medical care if your child develops sudden arm or leg weakness, a droopy face, or has difficulty swallowing or speaking.

What causes AFM?

There is a lot still unknown about the causes of AFM, but the CDC believes certain viruses play a role in what many refer to as a "mystery illness."

  • In 2014, there was an rise in AFM cases during an enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) outbreak. However, not all AFM patients had the enterovirus virus.

  • Other viruses, environmental toxins and genetic disorders are also potential causes of AFM.

  • Enteroviruses and rhinoviruses are also among the identified causes in many 2018 AFM cases.

Is there a treatment for AFM?

There is no specific treatment for AFM. However, some children with AFM have benefited from physical or occupational therapy.

In addition, a special AFM Physician Consult and Support Portal was created to connect medical professionals with neurologists specializing in AFM and other rare neuro-immune disorders. This peer support will allow medical professionals—especially ones in rural areas—to provide specialized care for children who need it.

Remember, AFM is different than polio!

While AFM is often called a "polio-like illness," polio is very different.

Prior to the polio vaccine, which was introduced in 1955, polio was very common in the United States. It paralyzed and killed thousands of people every year. Thanks to the vaccine, polio has been eliminated in the United States. But it still occurs in other parts of the world.

Why to keep getting children vaccinated for polio:

It would only take one person infected with polio coming from another country to bring the disease back here if we were not protected by vaccination. If the effort to eliminate the disease from the world is successful, some day we won't need polio vaccine. See 14 Diseases You Almost Forgot About Thanks to Vaccines.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2019)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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