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Will Childhood Paralysis Make a Comeback This Year?

Cases of acute flaccid myelitis, a condition that causes childhood paralysis, peak every other year. Are we due for a large number this year?

There’s good news when it comes to a mysterious illness that has been affecting children for about a decade. Acute Flacid Myelitis causes childhood paralysis, but it is not caused by the polio virus. Many children experience a respiratory tract infection caused by a specific enterovirus. Most recover, but some are left with paralyzed limbs.

The CDC has been worried for several years about this mysterious condition that causes childhood paralysis. Acute flaccid myelitis or AFM can start innocently enough with sniffles or a cough, fever and headache. But then it may progress to paralysis (Vital Signs, online Aug. 4, 2020). Some children have trouble eating and nearly a fourth have trouble breathing and require ventilation. The majority of the affected youngsters have been young—four, five or six years old.

What Is the Good News?

This all sounds pretty terrifying, so we’ll cut to the chase. Epidemiologists have noted that cases seem to increase during the winter every other year. AFM was expected to surge in 2022, but cases remained low. As of this week, the CDC reports 15 confirmed cases in 2023. That is far below the peaks that were seen 2014, 2016 and 2018. We do not know exactly why the case count has dropped dramatically, but it is good news indeed.

What Causes Childhood Paralysis?

The cause of AFM is not known, but infectious disease experts suspect that an enterovirus could be the primary culprit. Cases of this rare condition leading to childhood paralysis seem to surge every two years. In 2018, there were 238 cases reported, with just 46 detected last year. As a result, epidemiologists are concerned that there may be another large number of cases this year.

When Should Parents Seek Care?

Doctors worry that parents may be reluctant to take children to the emergency department when they start to develop symptoms. Fears of the novel coronavirus could be a barrier. Most doctors want parents to bring their child for care; just call ahead for any special instructions about how to limit exposure.

Although there is no cure, early aggressive treatment may limit the damage from this childhood paralysis. Consequently, experts urge parents to seek medical care as soon as they suspect a problem.

Some physicians hope that measures designed to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 might also limit the transmission of enteroviruses. If everyone is conscientious about maintaining distance, washing hands and wearing masks, it might help lower the cases of acute flaccid myelitis.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Kidd S et al, "Vital Signs: Clinical characteristics of patients with confirmed acute flaccid myelitis, United States, 2018." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 7, 2020. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6931e3external icon
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