Rare polio-like illness that causes permanent paralysis and even death spreads to 31 states across the US

The CDC has already confirmed 116 cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) and is investigating a further 270 possible cases


                            Rare polio-like illness that causes permanent paralysis and even death spreads to 31 states across the US

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there have been 286 possible and confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) — a rare polio-like illness that causes paralysis, and in rare cases, death — in the country.

Amongst those 286 cases, 116 are confirmed. That number represents more than a threefold increase from 2017, when the CDC had received information for 33 confirmed cases from 16 states, though that's still less compared to the 149 confirmed cases from 39 states in 2016.

The number of cases of AFM per state (Source: CDC)
The number of cases of AFM per state (Source: CDC)

According to a report by the CDC, 31 states have reported cases of patients suffering from the illness, with Colorado (15 cases) and Texas (14 cases) being the worst hit states.

Washington, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have reported eight cases each, with Illinois (7 cases), and New Jersey and Wisconsin (6 cases each) following.

Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Maryland have all reported three cases each while Maine, New York City, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Iowa have all seen two. Each of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, Virginia, and Rhode Island have reported one case each.

The remaining 19 states have been unaffected so far, but the Daily Mail reports that the CDC is actively looking into a further 170 possible cases where patients are exhibiting signs that have been attributed to the disease. 

Little is still known about AFM, but like Polio, it seems to most affect children. The CDC reported that 90% of patients affected by the illness were under the age of 18 and had an average age of four. The cause for the disease evades medical professionals as well — the CDC has already ruled out the poliovirus as a possible cause after all tests came back negative — though it was revealed that 90% of patients with AFM had a mild respiratory illness or fever consistent with a viral infection before they were diagnosed with the ailment. Patients also most often fall ill between the months of August and October.

According to the Mail, AFM is an unusual sub-type of transverse myelitis — a neurological disorder which inflames the spinal cord across its width and destroys the fatty substance that protects nerve cells — which affects the nervous system. It attacks the area of the spinal cord called gray matter and results in the weakening of the body's muscles and reflexes.

Patients with the disease first experience flu-like symptoms like coughing and sneezing before then developing muscle weakness, difficulties in moving their eyes, and polio-like symptoms of facial drooping and difficulty swallowing. In the most severe cases, patients can experience respiratory failures, become permanently paralyzed, or even face death.

The current theory is that it is caused by a cocktail of viruses after scientists discovered several of them — coxsackievirus A16, EV-A71, and EV-D68 — in the spinal fluid of four of 440 confirmed cases of AFM since 2014.  They are simultaneously investigating a number of other possible causes, including environmental toxins and genetic disorders.

While there is no cure as of now, the CDC advises parents to get their children vaccinated against the poliovirus and West Nile virus as a precaution because they suspect it may play a role in AFM. They also advise minimizing exposure to mosquitoes and using warm water and soap to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.