Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Alabama at Birmingham will study of a condition that mysteriously began ramping up in 2014 and has caused paralysis in hundreds of children around the world as well as in Maryland.

Acute flaccid myelitis has been called polio-like, but doctors don’t know what causes it, though they suspect it’s a rare response to common enteroviruses that normally lead to far more mild infections.

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“AFM produces devastating and long-standing neurological problems for children affected,” said Dr. Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Transverse Myelitis Center and co-principal investigator of the study, announced Tuesday. “Thus, there is an urgent need for a concerted collaborative effort around the country to tackle the problem with our best research tools and come up with better options for diagnosis and treatment.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that there were a record number of cases confirmed last year, 233, with six cases in Maryland. Since 2014, when the CDC began tracking the condition, there have been 570 confirmed cases, with more reports in late summer and early fall.

So far in 2019, there have been 11 confirmed cases, including one in Maryland.

There is no specific cure or prevention, though physical therapy is used as early as possible to improve muscle strength. Many children fully recover, though it can take months. The condition causes inflammation and damage to the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis of arms and legs. It also can cause facial drooping, difficultly swallowing, slurred speech and trouble breathing.

The researchers were awarded a $10 million federal grant by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study the course of the condition at 38 sites in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Peru over five years. They also will document the symptoms and severity, assess outcomes and identify related viruses. The data will help scientists determine who is most at risk and serve as a basis for treatments.

“Knowledge gained from this study hopefully will provide the foundation for future treatment studies of antiviral drugs,” said Dr. David Kimberlin, co-director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s division of pediatric infectious diseases and the study’s other co-principal investigator.

The study is expected to begin enrolling patients in August.

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