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21st Century Polio

By Celina Simmons

Acute flaccid myelitis, also referred to as AFM, has many similar symptoms to the once formidable polio that left thousands of children paralyzed in the early 20th century. AFM is a rare but potentially severe condition that affects the human nervous system. More specifically, it attacks the gray matter in the spinal cord, causing muscles and reflexes to weaken. Confirmed cases of AFM have been rising since 2014, and health officials still have no answer as to why.

21st Century Polio

Illustration by Alex Downing

Primary causes of AFM includes viruses, genetic disorders and environmental factors. But the cause of most cases is unknown to health officials. In addition, health officials do not know what long-term effects AFM has, because the confirmed cases vary in extremity. And not only that, but there is no treatment or vaccination for the condition as of today.

AFM symptoms can differ in severity and range from muscle weakness to complete paralysis. Symptoms include (but are not limited to) dizziness; trouble breathing, swallowing and moving; facial drooping; and slurring of the speech. Some patients heal rather quickly, while others continue to be in need of ongoing care. Another point to note about AFM is that most patients with confirmed cases are children ages one to eighteen.

A graph on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website shows a pattern forming with AFM outbreaks. Outbreaks have occurred every two years between August and October. In 2014 there were 120 confirmed cases, and in 2016, 149. In recent studies published on Oct. 5 of this year, there were 38 confirmed cases of AFM in 16 different states, but an unofficial tally with health officials in 24 states show a total of 85 suspected and confirmed cases.

Officially confirming an acute flaccid myelitis case can take up to a month. That’s because doctors must confirm that the patient’s spinal cord is being affected. Not all states require doctors to report cases of AFM. For example, in South Carolina doctors are not required to report any cases of the condition. Because of this, health officials will never have an exact count of confirmed cases.

The recent outbreak of AFM in children added to the uncertainty of the condition and may be a cause for concern. Health officials and doctors are working towards extensive research on the condition, but not much progress has been made. Unlike polio, acute flaccid myelitis cannot currently be prevented with a vaccine, nor are there any ways
to prevent it, so as of right now, it’s a luck of the draw.

Categories: Uncategorized

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