Three Pittsburgh-area children have recently been hospitalized with suspected cases of a rare polio-like condition called acute flaccid myelitis. While the CDC has yet to confirm these cases, symptoms and preliminary diagnoses point to AFM as the cause. This concise guide answers your need-to-know questions about what this condition is, how it spreads, and what you can do to prevent it.
What Is Acute Flaccid Myelitis?
Acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is a rare but serious condition that affects the nervous system. It typically presents suddenly in children who may have been exposed to viruses such as enterovirus D68, which is related to the poliovirus. It is possible that other viruses such as West Nile and adenovirus could also be a precursor to AFM, but scientists are still unsure of the exact causes of this condition.
An estimated 1 in a million people are affected by AFM, but there has been a recent spike in occurrences across the country.
What Are the Risk Factors for AFM?
AFM most frequently affects children, especially those who have developed a viral infection. Unlike polio, acute flaccid myelitis cannot be spread through contact. Still, health officials urge parents to practice healthy hygiene habits to stop the spread of viruses that could lead to AFM.
Spikes of AFM outbreaks have had a tendency to occur in August, September, and October and appear to follow a pattern of every-other-year. Researchers are still unsure of why these trends occur.
What Are the Symptoms of AFM?
The most notable symptoms of AFM include:
- Facial drooping
- Difficulty swallowing, speaking, or moving the eyes
- Slurred speech
- Trouble moving arms or legs
In rare cases, numbness in arms and legs can be related AFM, as well as difficulty breathing. If you notice these sudden onset symptoms in your child, seek immediate medical attention. While AFM is very rare, these symptoms could point to other serious conditions as well.
Does the Polio Vaccine Protect Against AFM?
While AFM and polio are both related to enteroviruses, there is currently no vaccine that specifically targets enterovirus D68, which is likely responsible for AFM. However, the CDC does encourage parents to keep their children up-to-date on vaccinations to help prevent the spread of viruses.
Is AFM Preventable?
AFM appears to be caused by rare complications that show up after a child has been exposed to a virus. Thus, proper hygiene habits like hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and staying up-to-date on vaccinations are the best preventative measures to take against AFM and a whole host of other virus-related illnesses.
Despite the recent headlines regarding this outbreak, keep in mind that AFM is still very rare, so there’s no need to panic. Remind your children of the importance of regularly washing their hands, especially as we head into cold and flu season, and stay alert for sudden symptoms.