In the last several years, hundreds of children across the country have shown up at hospitals unable to move their arms or legs. Dozens of kids have become paralyzed in the past few months alone. Doctors are not exactly sure why but suspect a viruse in the same family as poliovirus, known as enterovirus. A possible match is Enterovirus D-68 and the CDC is tentatively calling the disease acute flaccid myelitis (AFM).
Enterovirus D-68 was incredibly rare, almost never seen after it was first discovered in 1962 in four California children who had pneumonia. Though a cousin of poliovirus, it was only supposed to cause a runny nose and cough.
Patients can present with a URI or sudden onset of one, two, three or four limbs paralyzed with no cognitive changes
In late summer of 2014, enterovirus D-68 started sending kids struggling to breathe to emergency rooms around the country. News reports called it a rare, cold-causing virus, a danger to children with asthma.
But then an 11-year-old boy in Texas with a seemingly normal fever lost the ability to walk and move his right arm.
A 17-year-old girl in California experienced severe neck pain at her birthday party and ended up in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.
In Oregon, a 13-year-old boy’s diaphragm stopped working, so he needed a ventilator to breathe. He was completely paralyzed, able only to wiggle his toes and his right hand.
Whatever was happening to these children was “pretty much, literally, exactly, what polio did,” said Dr. Jean-Baptiste Le Pichon, a child neurologist who treated four such patients in 2014 at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Doctors coined a name for the phenomenon: acute flaccid myelitis. “Acute flaccid” for the sudden and total paralysis and “myelitis” for an injury to part of the spinal cord involved in muscle movement, called the gray matter.
Between August 2014 and January 2015, 120 children in 34 states were diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, according to federal health officials. The median patient age was 7.
Between June and August this year, another 30 kids nationwide became paralyzed, and scientists still don’t know why.
Dr. Manisha Patel, who heads the acute flaccid myelitis team for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency is concerned by the increase and its resemblance to 2014. Experts think case numbers for September and October will be even higher.
Some think there hadn’t ever been enough cases of enterovirus D-68 to unmask the horrifying side effect; only 26 people tested positive for the virus in 36 years. Another possibility is that enterovirus D-68 recently mutated to become more likely to paralyze those infected.
For now, experts say that enterovirus D-68 isn’t enough of a threat to make a vaccine and that many people now have immunity to the virus from the 2014 outbreak. Plus, it will probably mutate again, rendering a vaccine that protects against the current strain useless.