There are always incidents of rare diseases popping up in big countries such as the United States and Canada, but when the prevalence of these diseases begins to rise, scientists begin to worry (and sometimes panic ensues).
This is currently what’s happening in the case of a strange polio-like illness that has worried parents on alert as the number of children stricken with this illness has nearly quadrupled in one year.
So, what’s going on? How worried should we be? Let’s find out!
Is Polio Really Making a Comeback?
Take a deep breath. No, polio is not making a comeback. I think the reason people believe this is in part due to sensationalist media coverage, as well as genuine confusion about what this condition actually is.
This disease is not polio, it’s called acute flaccid myelitis. This disease was not a major topic of research before 2014 and had only 33 cases in 2017. However, in 2018, it has experienced a sudden emergence with 127 confirmed cases in the US alone.
90 percent of the confirmed cases of AFM are children under 18 years old, and it’s making health authorities really concerned. But what should you know, as a parent, about acute flaccid myelitis?
Acute flaccid myelitis is not the same as polio, which is much more common in children under five years old, and is caused by the poliovirus.
The poliovirus may also cause acute flaccid myelitis (thus the alarming connection being made between these two diseases), but the progression of the disease and the target age range are both different.
Where Did This Disease Come From?
Acute flaccid myelitis is more likely to be caused by the enterovirus 68, the West Nile virus, environmental toxins, or autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, the exact cause of acute flaccid myelitis is often undetermined. In other words, we still need more data about this disease and where it comes from. However, we do know it affects the neurons in the spinal cord.
What Are the Symptoms of Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM)?
AFM usually causes muscle weakness in the arms, legs, facial muscles, and eye muscles. In some cases, it causes total paralysis, depending on the affected neurons. Parents may notice their children stop using a given arm or leg, or that face or eye muscles are affected. For example, drooped eyelids or facial asymmetries could be telltale symptoms.
What Are the Risk Factors for Acute Flaccid Myelitis?
More research is needed to understand the disease fully and determine its precise risk factors. We do know that it is caused by certain viruses, but it is also triggered by genetic variables and other environmental factors. The major risk factors we can point to at the moment are not being adequately vaccinated against the poliovirus and having poor hygiene.
How Can I Protect My Children From This Disease?
Note that, even if the disease is more common in children under 18 years old, there’s also a portion of adults who could get the disease, as well, so prevention measures would protect both children and their parents.
According to the current recommendations by the CDC, the best way to protect yourselves and your children from this disease is to follow a regular immunization schedule that includes polio vaccination.
It is also essential to practice good hygiene to prevent the spread and infection of these viruses.
In summary, the polio-like paralyzing illness is not polio; it’s called acute flaccid myelitis, and it is still considered a rare disease by the CDC. Various factors can cause this disease, and the origin is often undetermined. It mostly affects children and causes muscle paralysis located in various parts of the face and body depending on the affected neurons.
More research is needed to understand this disease fully, but we do know proper hygiene and a regular immunization schedule would likely reduce the spread of this disease.