Acute Flaccid Myelitis: Should You Be Worried About The So-Called 'Polio-Like' Disease?

Nov 8, 2018

Alex Voland's 4-year-old son, Elijah, started exhibiting cold symptoms on Oct 12. Six days later, weakness set in, making it difficult for Elijah to move. She rushed him to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center where doctors ultimately began treating him for symptoms of acute flaccid myelitis.

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) made headlines recently because its symptoms were compared with those of polio, which has been eliminated in the United States. AFM is a rare condition that affects a person's nervous system causing weakness and paralysis in one's limbs.

The odds of contracting AFM are less than one in a million, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The agency reports there are 80 confirmed cases of AFM so far in 2018.

Children's Hospital doctors treating Elijah say the cause of AFM isn't clear. While the symptoms are similar to a virus, Joshua Schaffzin, M.D., director of Infection Prevention & Control, says cases Children's has seen don't appear to be contagious. No siblings or those in contact of children with symptoms have become ill, he says.

"Since so few people progress to AFM, there are likely host and possibly environmental factors involved as well," Children's says in its Frequently Asked Questions blog.

How Concerned Should You Be?

Children's won't say much about how many children it has treated other than the number is small. Schaffzin says more than one case has been reported to the CDC, but he won't say how many because the number is small and the hospital doesn't want to infringe on anyone's privacy.

Both Schaffzin and pediatric neurologist Marissa Vawter-Lee, M.D., were adamant in making sure people understand AFM is very rare and should not be confused with polio.

"This disease is not like polio in that it's not as common," Schaffzin says. "If it is caused by a virus, it either doesn't manifest in everybody that's infected with the virus, or it's not as easily transmissible as polio. Secondly, the respiratory condition which is strongly associated with polio is not common with this disease."

Vawter-Lee says the national average age of those diagnosed is four years old.

She says recovery successes are across the board with some children regaining nearly all mobility and others making little progress.

Symptoms

According the Cincinnati Children's, symptoms generally begin several days after a child exhibit signs of a cold.

Symptoms include sudden onset of muscle weakness, with loss of muscle tone and reflexes, resulting in:

  •     extremity weakness/paralysis (ranging from affecting one extremity to affecting all four extremities)
  •     respiratory weakness
  •     difficulty controlling the bowel and bladder
  •     drooping eyelids, or
  •     difficulty with swallowing or slurred speech due to facial weakness
     

If AFM is viral, the best way to protect against it is practicing standard precautions such as proper hand-washing, avoiding those who are ill, and staying home if you're ill, as well as getting children vaccinated against the flu.

If your child's cold symptoms don't improve after seven to 10 days, contact your physician.

"He's A Superhero"

As for Elijah, mother Alex Voland says he's a fighter and a superhero. He's receiving in-patient care and spends his days doing a variety of physical and occupational therapies.

"He has no idea what's going on," Voland says, adding the therapy exercises are games to him. "I'm being his rock for him."

Acute Flaccid Myelitis from 91.7 WVXU on Vimeo.

Voland, a student a Northern Kentucky University, says she's getting a lot of support from NKU, her community and her church. She says she had to quit her job so she could stay with her son in the hospital.

"He's doing really well," she says of Elijah. "He's really responding to the physical therapies and I can see the strength building in his upper body."

He's also seeing progress in his lower body. Dr. Vawter-Lee says Elijah had paralysis in both his legs when he arrived at the hospital. Two weeks ago, they began to see movement in his left leg again.