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What to know about acute flaccid myelitis, the polio-like illness that's affecting children

Five children in Maryland have contracted symptoms of an illness similar to polio this fall, according to state health officials. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether these children are infected with acute flaccid myelitis, a rare neurological illness.

What is acute flaccid myelitis?

Acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is a condition that affects the nervous system, particularly the spinal cord. It primarily occurs in children.


What are the symptoms of AFM?

AFM can cause weakness and pain in the arms and legs. Symptoms also can include facial droop and weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids or difficulty swallowing and slurred speech. Some patients may not be able to urinate.

Is AFM dangerous?

Rarely, people with AFM can suffer respiratory failure and require ventilator support when their breathing muscles become too weak. And in very rare cases, AFM can trigger fatal neurological complications.


How rare is AFM?

Extremely. According to the CDC, there were 38 confirmed cases in 16 states this year through Sept. 30. However, the illness has been on the rise in the U.S. since 2014. Between August 2014 and September 2018, 362 cases were confirmed by the CDC. Fewer than one in a million get the disease.

What causes AFM?

The CDC has not traced the illness to a specific virus, but the agency said it has a variety of causes including viruses, environmental toxins and genetic disorders. Viruses that can cause the disease include poliovirus, non-polio enteroviruses, adenoviruses and West Nile virus.

What can be done to prevent AFM?

The CDC encourages people to prevent the disease by staying up to date on vaccines, washing hands and protecting against mosquito bites.

How can AFM be treated?

There is no specific treatment for AFM. Some treatments such as high doses of steroids are used, but it is not certain they work.

Why is AFM likened to polio?

The symptoms are very similar to polio, or poliomyelitis, an infectious disease caused by a virus. Most people recover quickly from a polio infection, but it can cause fever and stiffness. In rare cases, it causes muscle weakness and even paralysis. There is a vaccine for polio.

What’s the prognosis for someone diagnosed with AFM?

Some patients recover quickly, while others experience paralysis and require ongoing care.