Polio-Like Mystery Disease Takes Another Child's Life: What Parents Need to Know

Blur image of child in the pediatric ward at the hospital

Ever since little Daniel Ramirez died October 30, parents have been on high alert. After all, it's not every day that we hear about a 6-year-old dying from a rare disease with polio-like symptoms -- and Daniel, scarily, isn't alone. While doctors are still trying to determine his cause of death, many medical experts are making moms and dads aware of an uncommon illness called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). And one thing is quite certain: We're worried about our kids' health and safety and we want answers.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 89 confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis in 33 states this year. The CDC is currently working with the Washington State Department of Health, as the state where Daniel lived has been flagged for a number of AFM-related cases. This illness is peculiar, as medical experts have yet to conclude what causes -- or how to officially prevent -- this rare disease.

As it stands, there is no vaccine for acute flaccid myelitis.

Although the CDC estimates that people have less than a one in one million chance of contracting this disease, researchers are working on the double due to the rise of AFM-related cases over the past few months. The CDC, however, notes that 2016 cases of acute flaccid myelitis are still less than in years prior.

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So, just what the heck is acute flaccid myelitis, and why are we hearing about it?

CafeMom recently spoke with Dr. Manisha Patel, a pediatrician and AFM team lead at the CDC, who says acute flaccid myelitis is a "rare but serious condition" that, like polio, affects the nervous system and can lead to paralysis and death. The really frightening thing is that it primarily affects children.

The CDC believes germs and viruses that might cause acute flaccid myelitis include the West Nile virus, adenoviruses (viruses that can infect membranes of the respiratory tract, nervous system, and other areas of the body) and enteroviruses -- like the ones that cause polio, for example. Dr. Patel, however, points out the CDC still doesn't know what's been causing the 2016 cases.

"We are working closely with health-care providers and state and local health departments to increase awareness and reporting for AFM, and investigate the AFM cases, risk factors, and possible causes of this illness," mentions Dr. Patel.

Now that we know what acute flaccid myelitis is, how can parents tell if their child has it and, more important, what can we do to prevent it?

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According to Dr. Patel and the CDC, moms and dads should look out for the following AFM-related symptoms in their kids, including:

  • Sudden weakness in the arms and legs
  • Facial sagging or drooping -- including the eyelids
  • Trouble moving the eyes

"Most patients with AFM will have sudden (a few hours to a few weeks) onset of weakness in the arms or legs. If your child isn't able to use their arms or walk normally, you should call your child's doctor," Dr. Patel tells CafeMom.

Parents whose children have exhibited one of these symptoms suddenly -- or who are unsure and have questions about acute flaccid myelitis -- are encouraged to speak with their child's doctor.

Still, the CDC hopes parents will remember AFM is a very rare disease (aka, try not to panic too much).

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As far as prevention goes, Dr. Patel says the basics -- like washing your and your child's hands with soap and water before eating and after using the bathroom -- are super helpful. The CDC also advises parents to avoid close contact with people who are currently sick and to make sure everyone is up to date on all their vaccinations -- especially the polio vaccines. Moms and dads are also encouraged to help protect their families from mosquito-borne viruses (remember, the West Nile virus is thought to be an AFM cause) by using insect repellent and steering clear of areas with stagnant water.

Dr. Manisha Patel and the CDC understand parents are concerned about acute flaccid myelitis and hope moms and dads will feel a little more empowered -- and reassured -- knowing the symptoms and ways to prevent AFM as researchers continue their investigation.
 

Image via Chaikom/Shutterstock

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