If you've been paying attention to the national news lately, you may have noticed that there has been a record number of AFM cases across the nation in 2018. AFM, which stands for acute flaccid myelitis, is a polio-like disease that causes sudden weakness in the arms and legs, along with a loss of muscle tone, and typically affects children.
AFM is a rare disease, with the number of cases varying widely from year to year. Through December 7, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had confirmed 158 cases of AFM since the beginning of the year and is investigating another 153 suspected cases. In 2017, there were only 35 confirmed cases. Most cases occurred in September and October with a decline in November, following an established pattern for the disease.
Cases of AFM have been confirmed in 36 states. So far in 2018, Florida has had only one confirmed case. So, while it's important to be aware of what’s happening with this disease and pay attention to your children's health, there’s no need to panic.
Symptoms of AFM
AFM is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other diseases, especially polio, Guillan-Barre Syndrome and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, often referred to as ADEM. In addition to muscle weakness, telltale symptoms may include difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, issues with swallowing or speaking, slurred speech or trouble breathing.
For parents, the most common symptom that indicates a case of AFM is the sudden onset of weakness in the arms or legs. Most patients will experience a respiratory illness, such as a cold, before the neurological symptoms present themselves. Because parents know their children better than anyone else, it's good advice to take any type of physical weakness that seems out of character for your child seriously and have them seen by a doctor.
To diagnose AFM, a physician will check the patient’s muscle tone and reflexes during a physical exam and may order an MRI of the brain and spinal cord. The doctor also may order a spinal tap or lumbar puncture to test the fluid around the brain and spinal cord, as well as test how well the nerves respond to electrical impulses. Unfortunately, while early medical intervention may help, there are no known treatments proven to be effective for AFM.
Also, because it's not clear what causes AFM, there are no known measures proven to prevent it. That said, most patients experience some form of viral infection, such as a cold or sore throat, prior to developing AFM symptoms. While this is only anecdotal, it's a good idea to have children protect themselves against all viruses by washing their hands frequently, especially before eating, and avoiding contact with others who are sick. As always, it's important to keep your child up to date with their immunizations. And if you plan to spend any time with your children outdoors, especially near water, be aware of mosquitoes, which can transmit viruses, and use plenty of insect repellent.
In the meantime, the CDC is working hard to learn as much as they can about AFM, toward the goal of developing effective vaccines and treatment protocols. Until then, play it safe by preventing viral infections as much as possible and taking your child to the doctor if you are concerned about any symptoms.
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