CDC Warns of New Outbreak of Life-Threatening Disease That Paralyzes Healthy Kids

Acute flaccid myelitis appears to be linked to viruses and peaks every two years, starting around this time

Symptom chart for childhood disease AFM

What to Know

  • The CDC warned Tuesday that it expects a new outbreak of a virus-linked disease called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM
  • The disease, which resembles polio in the way it paralyzes otherwise healthy kids, spikes every other year around August
  • Parents and doctors should suspect any child with sudden limb weakness in the next few months may have the disease

The CDC warned Tuesday that 2020 is likely to be a peak year for an uncommon but dangerous and potentially life-threatening neurological disease affecting children, acute flaccid myelitis.

The illness, also known as AFM, is believed to be caused by a virus and peaks every two years between August and November. In 2018 there were 238 confirmed cases, with half in children ages 5 and under. Experts believe the main culprit is an enterovirus called EV-D68. Enteroviruses are a large family of viruses. Some, such as polio, can damage the central nervous system, while many others cause mild symptoms or none at all. Another enterovirus, called EV-A71, has also been linked to some cases.

The CDC specifically warned that doctors need to be aggressive about hospitalizing and treating affected children at the first sign of illness, particularly sudden limb weakness.

"AFM can progress rapidly over the course of hours or days, leading to permanent paralysis and/or the life-threatening complication of respiratory failure in previously healthy patients, so delays in care can be serious," the CDC said in a statement.

"Parents and doctors should suspect AFM in patients with sudden limb weakness, especially during August through November. Recent respiratory illness or fever and the presence of neck or back pain or any neurologic symptom should heighten their concern."

A group of children in Colorado is showing polio-like symptoms, and doctors wonder if it may be linked to a nationwide enterovirus outbreak. Erika Edwards reports.

According to CDC statistics, more than half of people with AFM end up in an ICU and nearly a quarter require a ventilator.

Surveillance began in the United States for AFM in 2014, and the disease has consistently peaked every two years since in the late summer and early fall, leading to Tuesday's warning.

The disease particularly spikes during the month of September; 37 percent of 2018's cases happened then.

There have been 16 confirmed cases in 2020 and 38 reports of patients under investigation, as of July 31. There were 46 confirmed cases last year.

For parents, the warning comes at an incredibly fraught time, with questions over whether the coronavirus pandemic should keep kids from returning to school in the coming weeks.

That includes concerns over MIS-C, a rare and sometimes fatal inflammatory complication of COVID-19 that strikes children.

Health experts say the coronavirus pandemic could disrupt the usual pattern for AFM.

Scientists say it’s possible that mask wearing, school closures and others measures designed to stop spread of the coronavirus may also hamper spread of the virus suspected of causing the paralyzing disease.

Dr. David Kimberlin, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, called it “the million-dollar question.”

"We just simply don't know right now," said Kimberlin, who is co-leader of a national study to gather specimens from children who develop the paralyzing condition.

A crippling polio-like disease that’s sickened dozens of kids in the U.S. is now showing up in New Jersey. Rana Novini reports.
Associated Press/NBC
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