Understand: Acute flaccid myelitis and its symptoms

SAN ANTONIO – Acute flaccid myelitis has been around for almost five years and is still a very mysterious disease.

“It's a serious condition and it's very scary for the parents,” said Dr. Anita Kurian, assistant director of the Metropolitan Health District.

AFM is a disease that affects the spinal cord and has polio-like symptoms, which include sudden weakness in the arms or legs, facial drooping and slurred speech.

“We tend to see a spike in cases of acute flaccid myelitis every two years,” Kurian said. “So if it follows the trend, we expect to see a spike in 2020.”

Last year was a spike year with 235 AFM cases across the U.S., 31 of them in Texas. None of the cases were in Bexar County.

The only case reported in Bexar County was in 2017. So far this year, there have been 13 confirmed cases, two of which are in Texas.

Kurian said there is also a trend of AFM from August to October. She said it mostly affects children, with the average age of those diagnosed being 5 years old.

Why the trends occur is still unknown. Kurian said there hasn't been enough research done on the disease.

“For us to have good research data, we should have hundreds and thousands of cases, but we don't have that many,” Kurian said.

She said there is no proven way to prevent AFM and there is no cure for it, but parents can still take certain precautions. 

“We strongly believe viruses play an important role in acute flaccid myelitis,” Kurian said. “So, anything you can do to prevent viral infections" should be helpful.

She said parents and children should practice good hygiene. Always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, avoid touching your face and stay up to date on your vaccines, especially the influenza one.

Kurian said patients with AFM usually have respiratory symptoms a week before, such as coughing or sneezing or a fever. She said it’s unclear if catching symptoms early can make a difference.

Kurian said parents should take their child to the doctor immediately if they show symptoms, especially if the child is experiencing weak muscles.

The treatment for AFM includes occupational and physical therapy. Some patients can recover fully. Some may have symptoms longer than a year, and in severe cases, AFM can be fatal.

Last November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched an AFM task force to help in the ongoing investigation to help find the cause of the disease and improve treatments and outcomes.

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