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The Serious Illness That's Baffling Doctors and Terrorizing Parents

Photograph by Twenty20

The mysterious polio-like illness that emerged back in 2014 is back with a vengeance, and parents want to know why we still don't have a cure.

There have been 386 reported cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)—a serious condition that causes weakness in the arms or legs—in the U.S. between August 2014 and September 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sixty-two of these cases have already been confirmed in 22 states by the CDC, with more still under investigation.

But the real problem (other than the fact that the majority of those affected by AFM have been children) is figuring out what's causing this rare condition.

“Despite extensive laboratory testing, we have not determined what pathogen or immune response caused the arm or leg weakness and paralysis in most patients,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier from the CDC told NBC News.

“We don’t know who may be at higher risk for developing AFM or the reasons why they may be at higher risk," she said.

Despite extensive laboratory testing, we have not determined what pathogen or immune response caused the arm or leg weakness and paralysis in most patients.

One reason, Messonnier said, may be that we still don’t have a big enough group to study.

“Overall, the rate of AFM over the years that it has been diagnosed, which is since 2014, is less than one in a million,” she said. “That is why we say that this disease is incredibly rare.”

Another reason might be due to the simple fact that some viruses—like the EV-D68, a non-polio enterovirus that showed up in some of the children affected by AFM—are rarely tested by doctors.

According to NBC’s report, most doctors and public health officials have no idea what viruses are going around until it’s too late to pinpoint the cause. And since we can’t treat what we don’t understand, there’s really no way to create a vaccine without experiencing a pandemic.

"It might take a few days after an infection for a patient to develop what is called neuroinvasive disease,” NBC News reports, which is when a virus attacks the nerves, spinal cord or brain.

By the time any of the prominent symptoms occur—droopy eyelid, weak arm or trouble standing up—the virus is already gone.

So, what can parents do to protect their kids while researchers continue investigating?

Messonnier said parents (and kids) need to take preventative steps, such as washing their hands (the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections), using insect repellent and staying current on all immunizations, to help fight the virus causing AFM.

"As a parent myself, I understand what it is like to be scared for your child,” she said during a CDC telebriefing. “Parents need to know that AFM is very rare, even with the increase in cases that we are seeing now."

But, she warned, “it is also a serious condition.”

Messonnier suggested seeking medical attention right away if you or your child develops symptoms of AFM, such as “sudden weakness and loss of muscle tone" in arms or legs.

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