What parents should know about acute flaccid myelitis

You may have seen it in the news lately — a condition called “acute flaccid myelitis” or AFM. But what exactly is it, and should you worry?

We know it can be hard to make heads or tails of health-related news items. That’s why we’re examining the facts to help you make sense of this condition:

  1. Acute flaccid myelitis is a rare, polio-like illness. It affects the nervous system, causing the muscles and reflexes in the body to weaken. AFM typically affects children and adolescents up to age 22, usually following some type of viral illness in the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract. Previously diagnosed in kids in Australia and Asia, in recent months, cases of AFM have been diagnosed in states across the country. While the outbreak is unusual, the total number of cases is still relatively low.
  2. It’s important to know the symptoms of acute flaccid myelitis. If a child or young adult is affected by AFM, he or she may first develop cold symptoms (which typically occurs a couple weeks prior to the onset of neurological symptoms). From there, he or she will often experience sudden neurological symptoms, including a facial droop or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, difficulties with swallowing, slurred speech, and arm or leg weakness. The most severe symptom is respiratory failure, which can occur as the muscles that control breathing weaken. If you see any of these symptoms in your child, seek immediate medical care.
  3. Researchers think that enteroviruses are the cause of this outbreak of acute flaccid myelitis. Since it was first identified in 2014, researchers have been looking into the causes of AFM. The resurgence in cases this year has led to increased investigation, looking into individual diagnoses as well as clusters of the condition in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Doctors who have been treating the condition believe that a specific form of the enterovirus — enterovirus D68 — may be the cause. This virus, which typically circulates around the United States in summer and fall, seems to be the precursor of many cases of AFM.
  4. Acute flaccid myelitis is likely not transmissible. While researchers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still aren’t entirely certain what’s causing this rare disease, they do not believe it’s contagious. The director of the CDC recently stated that AFM doesn’t appear to be transmissible from human to human. So, while the condition may be triggered by a virus, AFM likely is not contagious.

So, what’s the bottom line when it comes to acute flaccid myelitis?

While the news reports may seem alarming, just continue to keep an eye on your child’s health. If he or she develops a respiratory infection or cold, carefully pay attention to symptoms. If the symptoms worsen or if any of the signs described above emerge, seek prompt medical care.

Your child’s pediatrician can answer questions about AFM and other emerging health news issues. Don’t have a pediatrician? Find one here.