CDC reports rise of polio-like illness that causes paralysis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning against a polio-like illness that is causing paralysis among an increasing number of Americans.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2016, the CDC reported 50 people in 24 U.S. states had been diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), compared with only 21 people in 2015 in 16 U.S. states. From August to December 2014, 120 people, mostly patients 21 and younger, in 34 U.S. states, were diagnosed with the condition.

AFM affects the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord, according to the CDC. The cause is unknown, but it has been linked to viral infections like polio and non-polio enteroviruses, adenoviruses, and the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. Enteroviruses can cause neurologic illness such as meningitis, but more serious disease like encephalitis and AFM are less common.

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Symptoms of AFM include pain in the arms and legs, an inability to pass urine, and, most severely, respiratory failure that can occur when muscles involved in breathing become weak. The latter symptom can require urgent ventilator support, according to the CDC. There is no specific treatment for AFM, but rather neurologists may prescribe therapy on a case-by-case basis.

Although the AFM outbreak in 2014 coincided with an outbreak of enterovirus D68, the CDC did not detect traces of the severe respiratory virus in the AFM specimens collected that year. Among the people with AFM in 2015, the CDC also did not detect the virus in the specimens collected, and only limited sporadic cases of the virus have been detected in the United States in 2016.

As health officials investigate the current rise of AFM cases, to prevent illness, they are advising people wash their hands with soap and water, avoid close contact with sick people, and clean surfaces with a disinfectant, especially those that a sick person has touched.