Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) is a rare disease that typically affects young children with an average onset age of six. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “It affects the nervous system, specifically the area of the spinal cord called gray matter, which causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak.”
The CDC estimates less than one in a million people will get AFM each year, but its impact can be devastating. AFM typically comes on quickly and can leave children in various states of paralysis depending on its severity.
Children that experience AFM may start with some muscle control issues and could eventually be unable to move their arms or legs. Scientists have not had a great deal of information about the disease or its potential causes. A new paper published in the journal of Pediatrics sheds some light on this mysterious condition. It’s now believed a virus could be the trigger for AFM.
Researchers now believe Enterovirus D68 could be a contributing factor to AFM. Enterovirus D68 on its own is like many common respiratory viruses. Symptoms may include a runny nose, fever, and aches, or it may exhibit no symptoms at all.
Researchers studying AFM over the past five years have noticed an important correlation between increased numbers of enterovirus D68 and increased cases of AFM. According to the study, in patients that developed AFM, “respiratory or febrile illness was reported in 79% with a median of 5 days.” This means around 80% of people who developed AFM experienced a respiratory virus an average of five days prior to their AFM symptoms. Enterovirus D68 was found in around 25% of patients with AFM.
The outbreaks also correlate. The CDC tracks common viruses like Enterovirus D68 that have outbreak patterns. Outbreak years where the viruses are more prevalent correspond to increased numbers of AFM. Researchers also noted this pattern proved true not only in the US, but is confirmed by AFM statistics in Asia, Europe and South America.
While this research is important because it clearly establishes a connection between Enterovirus D68 and AFM, it’s not conclusive. Enterovirus D68 is a common virus, but AFM is a very uncommon disease, so not everyone who has Enterovirus D68 will develop AFM. Enterovirus D68 may just be one of several contributing factors to the onset of AFM.
The virus itself resembles the poliovirus, which also can lead to paralysis. Researchers will continue to study the connection between Enterovirus D68 and AFM to determine if there are ways to limit the spread of the virus by vaccination or other methods.
In the meantime, parents are encouraged to remind their children to wash their hands, which helps to prevent the spread of all viruses. If your child begins to show any signs of facial drooping, weakness in their limbs or difficulty speaking or swallowing, especially after being sick, it’s important to see your physician right away.