What Is Acute Flaccid Myelitis? More Kids Are Developing The Rare, Polio-Like Illness In Several States

Health officials are warning parents of a potential life-threatening illness called Accute Flaccid Myelitis, after three more children tested positive. These children join a cluster of other infected pediatric patients in parts of Minnesota and Colorado. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is currently investigating the cases and its possible causes. So, what is acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)? More kids are developing this rare, polio-like illness across the board, and as with an scary news, knowledge is power. So, here's what parents should know.

AFM affects the spinal cord, muscular function, reflexes and usually occurs in children up to 10 years of age, according to TIME. In turn, this can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, respiratory failure or even death, according to the CDC. The real danger comes when muscles become so weak, the patient is no longer able to breath independently or when neurological complications are present.

These symptoms are very similar to polio, but vaccinations have completely eradicated the disease in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic. In fact, the last case of naturally occurring polio happened in 1979, the health agency noted. However, the disease still exists in parts of Asia and Africa, which is why the CDC suggests getting a polio booster shot before visiting either continent. There is no vaccine for AFM, according to CNN.

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To give some perspective on this size of the outbreak, at least a dozen children in Minnesota have been diagnosed this year, according to ABC News, and they usually only see about one case per year. In Illinois, nine cases of AFM have been reported, according to ABC News. And in Washington, at least five children are believed to have come down with the illness, according to KEPR.

If this is the first time you're hearing about AFM, you aren't alone. It's an exceedingly rare disease that affects about one in a million people in the United States each year, according to the CDC. A recent outbreak in 2014 brought AFM back into the spotlight and today's cases are furthering the investigation, according to CBS News.

The cause of AFM isn't always apparent, but it could be caused by a viral infection, environmental toxins, or genetic disorders, according to the CDC.

Health officials are unsure about the lasting affects of AFM because each diagnosis is treated on a case by case basis, according to CBS News. For instance, some doctors may recommend occupational or physical therapy, the news outlet reported.

“Since we don’t know, really, how it’s transmitted, it’s really hard to say if we’ll see more cases,” Kris Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at the Minnesota Department of Health told TIME. “But because there’s been so much attention to this, I think there’s going to be a greater awareness.”

The symptoms of AFM are varied. Patients usually report weakness in the arms and the legs as the first symptom followed by neck weakness, according to the CDC. There may also be facial drooping or difficultly swallowing.

So what's the best defense against AFM, if so little is known about the disease? Ehresmann recommends, according to TIME, that families follow the same hygiene routines used to keep cold and flu viruses at bay. This includes frequent hand washing, keeping kids home when they are sick, and making sure they are up to date on all vaccinations, Ehresmann told the publication.

Any disease that can be as harmful to children as AFM is bound to cause panic even the most levelheaded of parents. But, the best defense is always information. Just be sure to follow guidelines and visit the doctor at the first sign of any symptoms.