A rare and mysterious illness has made its way to Spokane County and health officials are searching for answers. The Washington Department of Health confirms a Spokane County child is being evaluated for possible Acute Flaccid Myelitis, commonly known as AFM.
“The CDC is currently reviewing information on this child,” Anna Halloran, Epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, said.
The scariest part about the syndrome is that the CDC doesn't know the cause of AFM or how to prevent it. AFM is a very rare syndrome, affecting about one in one million people, but a recent increase in cases is cause for alarm.
AFM is described as a polio-like illness. Symptoms include sudden weakness of limbs, loss of reflexes, difficulty swallowing and slurred speech. In severe cases, patients suffer respiratory failure or paralysis.
“A small number of cases recover, either completely or regain some movement,” Halloran said. “But in some cases, there is no improvement.”
This is the first sign of AFM in Spokane County. The Health District says the child is a boy under the age of 10. Two more children are being evaluated in King County. This comes just two weeks after the CDC confirmed eight children who were hospitalized in five counties across Washington tested positive for the rare disorder. They are all between 3 and 14 years old.
“It really is a very devastating experience for children and families,” Halloran said.
The reason children developed the condition has remained a mystery. Federal and state health officials continue to investigate.
“We're finding that children are affected more frequently and there are only theories at this point on why that may be,” Halloran said.
AFM itself is not contagious, but one alarming complication is that it appears to sometimes be triggered by common viruses.
“It can also be caused by environmental toxins or autoimmune disorders,” Halloran said. “But this is a very, very rare condition.”
There hasn't been any direct link found between any of the cases in Washington State or the 89 people in 33 other states that have been diagnosed with AFM in 2016, causing even more of a mystery for health officials.
So how do you keep yourself and your children safe from a disease with no known cause?
Health officials say getting to a doctor early is crucial. The best way you can stay safe is to maintain good hygiene by washing your hands frequently, especially before touching food and after using the restroom.
The CDC says staying up to date on recommended vaccinations, especially for polio virus, can be helpful. It's important to point out that while children are especially vulnerable, anyone can be affected.
"We certainly understand people's concern around this. It's a very scary condition and syndrome. We understand parent's desire to want to do something to prevent it, but really we have no call to action beyond the normal things parents are already doing to prevent illnesses during cold and flu season," Halloran said.
There is no specific treatment for AFM. The CDC is the only entity that can rule out or confirm an AFM case.