CDC urges physicians, parents to be on lookout for AFM, a polio-like illness seen predominately in children

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With 2018 data showing highest incidence acute flaccid myelitis since monitoring began, officials say awareness, recognition of rare life threatening condition will be crucial to early intervention

As seasonal influenza gathers force this fall, and the spread of COVID-19 remains a central concern, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Monday called for readiness to recognize and respond to a far less common but increasing and potentially deadly condition affecting mostly children.

Cases of the condition, acute flaccid myelitis — or AFM — characterized by the onset of muscle weakness in limbs that can progress rapidly to reliance on a ventilator and result in permanent paralysis, have risen sharply every two years between August and November since the CDC began to track cases of it in 2014. The last spike in incidence, in 2018, was the largest, data released by the CDC in a Vital Signs report showed. Linked to several viruses, much about risks and prevention of illness from it remains unknown, CDC Director Robert Redfield said Monday.

The most reliable prevention measures, he noted, are those central to stopping the spread of other diseases, including COVID-19: covering coughs, frequent hand-washing, sanitizing high-touch surfaces and getting vaccinated against seasonal influenza. Initial symptoms also are common to other illnesses, with the first symptom, fever, preceding the onset of muscle weakness by about six days.

From there though, the need for urgent action escalates sharply. Of 238 patients with the condition on whom CDC gathered data in 2018, 98% were hospitalized, 54% required intensive care, and 24% required mechanical ventilation. The median age of patients was a little more than 5 years old. At a time when COVID-19 concerns may discourage emergency room visits, immediate hospitalization of people showing symptoms of the condition remains the best hope of containing its damage and collecting specimens needed for accurate diagnosis. While public health officials continue to gather data on long-term outcomes, information on patients a year after the 2018 outbreak indicate that many will suffer permanent disabilities.

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