The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned parents and doctors Tuesday that it expects another outbreak this year of a rare but life-threatening condition that mostly affects children.
Outbreaks of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a serious neurologic condition that can cause paralysis, typically peak every two years between August and November.
The last peak occurred in 2018, when 238 cases were reported to the CDC.
While rare, parents and doctors should be vigilant to recognize symptoms of AFM because it progresses quickly over the course of hours or days, leading to permanent paralysis or life-threatening respiratory failure in previously healthy patients, according to the CDC.
“As we head into these critical next months, CDC is taking necessary steps to help clinicians better recognize signs and symptoms of AFM in children,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield.
Symptoms can include recent or current respiratory illness, fever, pain or numbness in limbs, difficulty walking, talking or swallowing, headache, back or neck pain, or facial weakness. Parents should immediately seek medical care if a child develops sudden arm or leg weakness, the CDC says.
The CDC said it does not yet know how many deaths are connected to AFM, adding that many children who develop the condition will have a permanent disability.
In 2018, most patients had a respiratory illness or fever before experiencing limb weakness, according to the CDC. This leads scientists to think that AFM is caused by a virus, but much of the disease remains a mystery.
“We’ve learned a lot but we have a lot to learn about AFM. We don’t yet know why certain kids develop AFM when the great majority who have respiratory illness recover with no neurologic symptoms,” said Thomas Clark, deputy director of CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases.
“Not understanding risk factors means I also can’t tell parents anything specific they can do to prevent AFM but it’s important to remember usual hygiene measures we recommend in respiratory virus season,” including regularly washing hands and sanitizing frequently touched objects in addition to getting vaccinated for the flu, Clark added.
The median age of AFM patients in 2018 was 5 years and 58 percent were male.
In 2018, 98 percent of patients were hospitalized, 54 percent were admitted to an intensive care unit, and 23 percent required ventilation.
It’s not yet clear if social distancing because of COVID-19 will affect circulation of the enteroviruses and other viruses thought to cause AFM.
But the CDC emphasized that it’s extremely important to seek medical care if children show potential symptoms of AFM, even during a pandemic when parents might be worried about visiting health facilities.
“We want parents to understand that many measures have been taken to provide health care onsite safely,” Clark said.
“AFM is a medical emergency and any signs of limb weakness in their kids that develop suddenly, they need to take them to the doctor.”