Are We Looking At A New Polio Epidemic?


In 1952, almost 60,000 children became ill with polio, and more than 3,000 died, according to NPR. That’s a single year, and it’s numbers like this that made polio the single most terrifying disease of its day. Children of all ages and backgrounds were left paralyzed, or worse. By 1979, polio was gone in the U.S., eliminated thanks to a widespread vaccination program. Now, AFM is here…and it’s scary.

More than half the states in the U.S. have reported cases of AFM, acute flaccid myelitis, this year, as reported by the Inquisitr. AFM causes paralysis and seems to strike mostly children. The condition affects the nervous system, with particular emphasis on the gray matter in the spinal cord.

CNN found that Colorado has the most confirmed cases at 14. The CDC estimates that AFM affects less than one million people every year across the country, but there has been an increase in cases since August 2014. The CDC still hasn’t determined the root cause of the illness, and says it “can be difficult to diagnose because it shares many of the same symptoms as other neurologic disease.”

AFM is not even a reportable disease in some states. There is no one specific treatment for AFM, but there are several treatments that have been tried.

“There is a lot we don’t know about AFM,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, according to NPR. “Despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness.”

Featured image credit: Pexels

About 90 percent of AFM cases the CDC has studied have been patients who are 18 or younger. The average age of patients is 4 years old. Children get better quickly in some cases, while others need ongoing care.

Since 2014, there have been 386 confirmed cases, hardly the stuff of an epidemic. However, the recent spike is a bit more scary and the comparison to polio, even more so.

The symptoms are similar, but that’s where the relationship between polio and AFM ends. AFM is not in the same family of viruses as polio. According to Messonnier, “we know that poliovirus is not the cause of these AFM cases.” Specimens have been tested from AFM patients, and none have tested positive for poliovirus.

There have been no cases of polio that have originated in the U.S. since 1979, according to the CDC.

“Parents need to know that AFM is very rare, even with the increase in cases that we are seeing now,” said Messonnier.

So far, no children have died of AFM in 2018, reports CBS News. There was one fatality in 2017. AFM is scary, but it is still a rare disease despite the small spike that has appeared more recently. Epidemics typically spread rapidly through large populations, and AFM has been in the population since at least 2014. Polio is a highly contagious virus, and that’s part of what made it so dangerous and so difficult to manage. AFM is not as aggressive.

New treatments for AFM are being studied and tested, and the CDC is still looking for a common link to determine what causes AFM in the first place.