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Doctors concerned about illness that can paralyze children

Doctors concerned about illness that can paralyze children
Posted at 10:48 PM, Aug 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-09 12:35:29-04

The CDC says there's yet another illness that you need to be aware of; one that has serious outcomes as doctors warn of a possible outbreak of AFM, or Acute Flaccid Myelitis, which can cause paralysis in children.

When Kinley was just 5 years old, what started as a stomach and headache turned into exhaustion. By the time her parents got her to the hospital, she was admitted into the ICU. By the next morning, she was on life support and paralyzed in all limbs.

Now 11, hers is one of the 633 nationwide cases to date of AFM. Dr. Janell Routh, a pediatrician and AFM Team Leader for the CDC, says they've been tracking the neurologic condition since 2014.

“Something changed in 2014, the epidemiology changed and we saw an increase in cases,” Routh said. “We confirmed 120 cases in 2014. We think that new epidemiology suggests that we have either a new cause for this condition or a cause that somehow changed to become more virulent.”

By 2018, the number of cases had doubled. Which means 2020, the year that seems to be affected by everything, will see more cases. The CDC says the type of virus that causes AFM starts with a basic fever. Which then may go away and come back.

“Most parents don’t necessarily think much about a fever and the sniffles- if parents do see limb weakness so their child complaining of pain maybe headache or back pain and weakness in one or more limbs that is a sign they need to seek medical care immediately,” Routh said.

Routh says AFM progresses rapidly by attacking the gray matter of the spinal cord. Paralysis can set in in a matter of hours or days.

“I remember one mother telling me that her child laid limply on her chest, couldn’t move. Those are signs that they really need to call their pediatrician or go the ER and get evaluated,” Routh said.

As it's a relatively new syndrome, there's a lot we don't know. There's no lab test to diagnose it and there's no vaccine. 90% of the cases are in children under the age of 18 with the average age being 5. Some recover, some have long term complications like Kinley, who is now 11 and still on a ventilator. She's regained use of her right leg and foot and uses it for school work and painting.

“I’ve definitely seen how this condition can affect children and their families, not just from a physical standpoint but from an emotional standpoint disrupting the lives of families,” Routh said.

The CDC is now trying to track patients and outcomes, tracking the recovery of those who have been diagnosed and researching those who may be at risk. They do know that it seems to affect kids in late August and early September, and prevention is similar to what you'd do for other viruses like COVID-19. Hand washing, staying home if you're sick, and having good cough etiquette.

“AFM is a medical emergency and so if parents do see signs of limb weakness in their children after a viral illness and in those late summer early fall months - call your pediatrician go to the emergency room,” Routh said.

And she says, while there is so much focus on COVID-19, it's definitely not the only virus that is spreading.