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Should You Be Worried About Polio-Like Illness?

The CDC calls it acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). Others call it polio-like illness. That's because it can lead to paralysis. For personal reasons I'm worried.

A strange polio-like illness is spreading around the country. At last count more than 120 suspected cases have been reported in at least 22 states. This condition, acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), first appeared in 2012 in California. A cluster of children with weakness or paralysis of their limbs and neurological changes in their spinal cords had physicians puzzled. They were tested for polio and West Nile Virus, but the tests were negative. Since then, cases have been cropping in many other states.

The CDC is Baffled:

Our main public health organization, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has no idea what is going on. Why are children all across the country losing strength in their arms or legs or becoming paralyzed? Even after six years, scientists are still puzzled about this mysterious polio-like illness. Some children recover while others remain paralyzed.

What States Have Reported Cases of Polio-like Illness?

There is some confusion about how many states have reported cases of AFM. CNN contacted health departments across the country.

The report:

“…30 states said they had cases that were confirmed, suspected or being investigated…”

States Reporting Possible Polio-Like Illness:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

The Official CDC Report as of This Week:

The CDC says it has received 127 reports from 22 states.

Since August of 2014:

“CDC has received information on a total of 386 confirmed cases of AFM across the US; most of the cases have occurred in children.”

Researchers are Stymied:

Scientists suspect a virus triggers the nerve damage, but so far no one has identified the culprit. There is no treatment and no vaccine. Although the CDC states that this condition is extremely rare, the symptoms and consequences appear similar to polio. As a result, parents are getting worried by the increasing number of cases. CDC will be issuing weekly updates.

People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

This is especially scary for me. That’s because when I was two years old I came down with polio. That was 1947 and there was no treatment and no vaccine. I was placed in an isolation ward in the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

I was surrounded by sick and dying children. I could not move because my legs were attached to pulleys to create traction on my muscles. My parents could not visit. Once a week, I could see them through a tiny glass window in the door at the end of the large children’s isolation ward.

It was a frightening time. I never had to be placed inside an iron lung. For that I am extremely grateful. Gradually I was able to regain strength in my muscles. My parents bought me a pedal car that I longed to move. Eventually, I was able to make it move a few inches. Over many months I moved it a little further each day. As a teenager I was able to play basketball and tennis without a limp.

Although I was able to overcome my paralysis, I had nightmares about the hospital experience for many years. I do not want any other child to have to go through what I suffered.

The CDC reports that AFM, a polio-like illness, is rare. That may be reassuring, but we are worried. Every new disease is rare in the beginning. The number of cases reported seems to be increasing with greater awareness about this disease.

This mysterious illness has been around since 2012 (MMWR, Oct. 10, 2014). Let’s encourage our public health officials to treat AFM with the utmost urgency. We need to know what is causing this illness and we need a vaccine or a treatment as soon as possible.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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