CDC Warns Doctors to Look for Early Signs of Mysterious Polio-Like Illness

Since 2014, three outbreaks of the rare polio-like illness called acute flaccid myelitis have occurred in this country, according to the warning issued by the Center for Disease Control. Explaining that AFM "is a rare but serious syndrome (a pattern of symptoms) that causes limb weakness, mostly in children," the CDC is urging doctors to pay attention to early symptoms.

Putting some numbers behind the AFM outbreaks, CNN reports that:

Last year saw the highest number of cases of acute flaccid myelitis so far -- 233 confirmed cases in 41 states. It tends to spike between August and October every other year, including outbreaks in 2014 and 2016 with 120 and 149 cases, respectively. So far this year, there have been 11 confirmed cases in eight states out of 57 patients under investigation.

If recent trends are any indication, those 11 cases will undoubtedly rise. Speaking to reporters, CDC's Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said, "AFM is a devastating illness for patients and their families. We know families are facing uncertainties when it comes to their child's recovery from AFM, and we want parents to know that we are keeping their children front and center and working with our partners to better understand this illness, its risk factors and ways to treat and prevent it."

The CDC believes that doctors pinpointing the illness in patients early is key to helping researchers better understand AFM and to finding potential treatments. They instruct doctors and other medical care providers to be on the lookout for "patients with acute flaccid limb weakness, especially after respiratory illness or fever, and between August and October."

Encouraging doctors not to "wait for CDC's case clarification for diagnoses," they are instructed to "Hospitalize patients immediately, collect lab specimens, diagnose, and begin medical management. … Alert the health department and send lab specimens and medical records."

Mysterious diseases are scary enough, but AFM seems to strike children at a much higher rate than adults. The average age for those afflicted with AFM in 2018 was only 5. The onset of paralysis makes it all the more frightening for parents. Like most illnesses, early detection is key and the CDC is encouraging doctors to act with an abundance of caution. Not only will early detection help researchers understand AFM but it also raises the odds that the patient recovers.

As we enter the time of year that sees the most AFM diagnoses, parents should be on the lookout for any symptoms.  One of the scariest statistics in CDC's warning is that "On average, CDC received reports of suspected AFM cases 18 days after patient’s limb weakness began."

Parents often don't want to be perceived as overprotective, but AFM is no joking matter. It's worth the risk of feeling foolish to insist that your child's doctor consider AFM if the child is demonstrating any of the symptoms. Remember, any sign of limb weakness after respiratory illness or viral infection accompanied by a fever is cause for concern. Don't delay in getting your child to a doctor. And don't allow the doctor to dismiss your concerns.