Don't panic — but the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just issued a warning regarding a very serious childhood condition they expect might be on the rise. Known as acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, it's simply a condition linked to one of the many enteroviruses that circulate each or every other cold and flu season. This year, however, that particular enterovirus strain (called EV-D68) is more prevalent than in years past.
After everything parents and kids have been through since 2020, each "new" or problematic condition that makes headlines can begin to feel like the end of life as we know it all over again. So, before the panic spiral takes over, know this: Fewer than 250 cases of AFM per cycle have occurred since 2014. It's still a rare disease. And following the CDC's latest health and safety guidelines will help prevent AFM.
What exactly is AFM, though? When does it occur, and what will it look like if it affects your child? Knowing the answers to these questions will go a long way in helping you stay prepared... and calm.
What is AFM?
AFM stands for acute flaccid myelitis. According to the CDC, "acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is an uncommon but serious neurologic condition. It affects the nervous system, specifically the area of the spinal cord called gray matter, which causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak." Many suggest that it presents itself similarly to Polio, which wreaked havoc on many children before the polio vaccine.
How much of a concern is AFM?
For most parents, the numbers won't seem very concerning. You should still be following COVID protocols and practicing good health and wellness practices, as the CDC continues to recommend in their briefs concerning both COVID and AFM. Washing hands, masking when sick, practicing social distancing, and not sharing food are all precautions the CDC recommends Americans take to avoid spreading disease. Following their guidelines will significantly reduce your chances of contracting a rhinovirus or respiratory virus. In turn, that reduces your child's chances of dealing with AFM.
Proof that following the CDC's guidelines will help is when you look at the number of cases each cycle. AFM runs on a two-year cycle and appears every other year. While there were only 33 cases in 2020, during the height of COVID restrictions, there was previously an upward trend in cases. More than 200 cases of AFM were reported in 2018. As of early September 2022, the CDC has been made aware of 13 cases.
When does AFM occur?
It's also vital to remember that not every kid with a respiratory infection will be in danger of AFM. Like there are Flu A and Flu B (and now multiple COVID variants), several strains of viruses affect our population each year. So far, it appears that only the aforementioned EV-D68 strain is linked to AFM. How do you know if your child is at risk of AFM? Well, it's safe to assume that, if your child has been sick, they might be at risk.
What are the signs and symptoms of AFM?
It's more likely that a child suffering from a respiratory virus will experience an asthma flare-up than AFM. However, there are signs and symptoms of AFM that are worth noting:
- Your child has been sick, started to recover, and then halted or regressed in their recovery.
- Sudden onset of arm or leg weakness.
- Loss of muscle tone.
- Loss of reflexes.
If your child has been sick and is displaying any of these symptoms, it's best to see your pediatrician immediately. While there is currently no specific treatment for AFM, physical therapy might help with limb weakness. And in any case, doctors and clinicians can steer you toward the best options for your child.