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Several states, including Illinois and Missouri, report rare paralysis in children

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Ten children in Illinois and at least one in Missouri have been diagnosed with a rare polio-like condition, after similar spikes of the illness in Minnesota and Colorado.

Acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, damages the spinal cord and causes weakness or paralysis in the arms or legs. While not new, the condition has been studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since a rise in cases starting four years ago.

There have been 362 cases of AFM across the U.S. since August 2014, including 38 this year. Colorado reports 14 cases of AFM in children in 2018, while Minnesota health officials have reported six cases in the last month.

One child was recently diagnosed with AFM at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, according to Dr. Jason Newland, infectious disease specialist.

The 10 suspected cases in Illinois are in the northern part of the state, according to a state health alert.

The cause of most of the AFM cases is unknown, although it can be a rare complication of viruses similar to the common cold. It mainly affects children and can cause permanent disability. Although AFM is not contagious, the underlying viruses are.

Most of the Colorado cases have been linked to enterovirus A71. The viral strain enterovirus D68 also has been connected to muscle weakness or paralysis, including at least two cases in St. Louis in 2014.

Enterovirus D68 circulated in the St. Louis region again in August and September, Newland said.

Neurological symptoms can develop from a respiratory virus or a mosquito-borne virus such as West Nile in a tiny fraction of illnesses, doctors say. Fewer than one in a million people develop AFM each year, according to the CDC.

Polio, another enterovirus, caused widespread paralysis in the 1950s but was eradicated in the U.S. through immunization.

The symptoms of weakness in an arm or leg come on suddenly with AFM. Other symptoms may include a facial or eyelid droop, difficulty with eye movement, slurred speech or difficulty swallowing. Parents should seek medical care for children if they experience any of these symptoms or have trouble breathing, severe headache, dizziness, stiff neck or seizures.

Doctors use MRI and spinal taps to determine the cause of the symptoms, though a diagnosis is difficult because AFM can mimic other neurological disorders, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome.

There is no treatment for AFM. Most patients will need physical therapy. Damage to the nervous system can be long-lasting or permanent.

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