By Andy Miller
Georgia Health Network
Three Georgia children have been reported with a rare, polio-like health condition, state officials said.
The young patients, whose locations were not identified, are among 62 children nationally who have been confirmed with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
At least 65 more cases across the nation are still under investigation, CDC officials added.
There is no known cause of AFM, whose symptoms include weakness in the arms or legs, and sometimes paralysis.
The CDC noticed an increase in this type of acute flaccid paralysis in children in 2014. At the same time there was a nationwide enterovirus outbreak, said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Since then the CDC has requested states report suspected cases of AFM.
Dr. Sumit Verma is the medical director of the Neuromuscular Program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He said the state’s pediatric system has seen 10 to 12 AFM cases since 2016.
AFM affects the nervous system, specifically the area of the spinal cord called “gray matter.” It causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak or even paralyzed. Cases of AFM are characterized by a sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes, CBS News reported.
Symptoms include sudden muscle weakness in the arms or legs, often following a respiratory illness. Some other symptoms include neck weakness or stiffness, drooping eyelids or a facial droop and difficulty swallowing or slurred speech, public health officials said.
The symptoms are likened to those caused by polio, which was eradicated in the United States after the development of the polio vaccine.
The CDC emphasized that none of the children who were diagnosed with AFM or had similar symptoms had the polio virus.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier is the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She said so far, no common cause linking these illnesses has been found.
“There is a lot we don’t know about AFM,” Messonnier said. “I am frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness.”
The average age of the children affected is about 4 years old, she said. Ninety percent of cases the CDC has studied since 2014 involved patients 18 or younger.
Messonnier said scientists don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of the illness.
“We know that some patients diagnosed with AFM have recovered quickly, and some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care,’’ she said.
There is no cure for acute flaccid myelitis, but there are ways to manage the symptoms, Dr. Verma added.
He said rehabilitation can also improve function and quality of life.
“It’s a very slow rehab and recovery,’’ Verma said. “The majority of kids have persistent weakness.
“It (AFM) is very rare,’’ he added. “We don’t need to panic on this.”
Messonnier agreed. “We know this can be frightening for parents. I encourage parents to seek medical care right away if you or your child develops sudden weakness or loss of muscle tone in arms and legs.”
Since the condition was first recognized by the CDC in 2014, the agency has confirmed 386 cases nationally through Oct. 16, mostly in children.
Messonnier said it is possible milder cases of AFM haven’t been reported by doctors to their state health department or to the CDC. But that number would be small, she added.
“This is actually a pretty dramatic disease,” Messonnier said. “These kids have a sudden onset of weakness, and they are generally seeking medical care and being evaluated by neurologists, infectious disease doctors and their pediatricians and coming to public health awareness.”
While there is no known cause of AFM, possible sources being considered include viruses that affect the digestive system called enteroviruses, and strains of rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold, Messonnier said.
The CDC said it is considering the possibility that environmental toxins could trigger the sudden muscle weakness. They’re also not ruling out possible genetic disorders.
The state Department of Public Health said the best prevention message is to make sure children wash their hands, cover a cough or sneeze and stay home when sick. Parents should also make sure their children are up to date on vaccines.
Parents should contact their child’s pediatrician as soon as possible if they see any symptom of AFM, such as if their child is not using his/her arm.