Why AFM Has Been Making Headlines More Than Ever Before

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Like many parents, when I saw the news about a “polio-like” mystery virus affecting hundreds of American kids, my mama-bear anxiety went into full gear. What on earth was this virus? How common is it? And how can I make triple sure my kids don’t get it?

After doing some research (they say parents do better research than the FBI, and it’s true), my fears were quickly assuaged – well, most of them anyway.

It turns out that the virus in question – Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) – is actually extremely rare, and although the symptoms are scary AF, there is very little reason for the average mom or dad out there to worry. Phew.

So what exactly is AFM, and why has it been making headlines this year?

According to the CDC, AFM is a rare condition that affects the nervous system – the spine and gray matter in the brain – causing symptoms of paralysis like weak muscles and dulled reflexes. It is not to be confused with polio, but has some of the same symptoms. In general, symptoms come on quickly, and can include:

– Muscle weakness in the arms and legs

– Drooping eyelids or difficulty moving the eyelids

– Facial drooping

– Difficulty swallowing or slurred speech.

There are two main reasons AFM has parents worried. The first is that it seems to affect young kids the most. The AAP explains that most of the cases identified have involved kids who are an average of 4 years old. The second troubling fact is that there has been mysterious uptick in AFM cases over the past few years.

According to a December 10, 2018 press release from the AAP, this year has seen the greatest number of AFM cases among children: 158 cases, the highest since tracking of the condition started. 2014 and 2016 also saw high numbers, 149 and 120 respectively. As of now, the AAP says the disease has likely peaked and we are probably not going to see too many new cases going forward this year.

As a parent, when I look at those numbers – especially their increasing nature – I get panicky. I picture one of my kids in those stats. I think it’s only natural to think that way. However, as the AAP notes, the chance of any of our kids contracting AFM is extremely rare: It’s a 1 in 1 million chance.

“As a parent myself, I understand what it’s like to be scared for your child,” Dr. Nancy Meissonier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, tells the LA Times. “Parents need to know that AFM is very rare, even with the increase in cases we’re seeing now.”

At this point, doctors don’t know for sure what causes AFM – which I think is yet another reason why parents are so on edge about the whole thing. Doctors have seen a correlation between kids contracting various respiratory viruses and then exhibiting AFM symptoms soon after. However, there isn’t one specific respiratory virus that doctors have pinpointed as a cause as of now.

“In 2014, there was an rise in AFM cases during an enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) outbreak,” writes the AAP. “However, not all AFM patients had the enterovirus virus. Other viruses, environmental toxins and genetic disorders are also potential causes of AFM.”

Yeah, the fact that doctors don’t know what causes it is not very reassuring at all. But again, it’s important to keep in mind how very rare AFM is, so the chances of your child getting it is truly miniscule.

Although there isn’t much we can do to ensure that our kids don’t contract AFM, the AAP says that basic hygiene and disease prevention techniques are important for prevention of AFM, just like any other disease. Here are their recommendations:

– Wash your hands frequently

– Vaccinate yourself and your kids

– Regularly sanitize and disinfect household surfaces

– Keep your kids home when they are sick

– Apply insect repellant when you’re near mosquitos

As with any health concern, you should visit your pediatrician ASAP if your child shows any usual symptoms. Again, in the case of AFM, muscle weakness, paralysis, droopy face, slurred speech, or difficult swallowing are what to watch for.

Although there aren’t many treatment option for AFM at the moment, if your pediatrician suspects your child has it, they may refer you to a pediatric neurologist. Physical or occupational therapy has proven helpful for some AFM patients. And again, although there is currently no vaccination for AFM, it’s important to keep up to date on all your child’s vaccinations.

The bottom is is, yes AFM is scary, especially the fact that there has been a marked increase this year in particular. But there is no reason to panic at this time. Truly.

Now excuse me while I slather my kids from head to toe with hand sanitizer and research ways to keep them in a bubble for the entirety of cold and flu season.

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