California Children Sick With Mysterious Illness That Mimics Polio


A mysterious illness that is affecting children in California has doctors and researchers not only deeply concerned; they are extremely puzzled and at a loss to explain what is causing these children to get sick. The virus, if that is what it is, mimics the symptoms of polio and as many as 25 children have suffered permanent paralysis in one or more limbs. These children are from all across the state and although Dr. Carol Glaser, from the California Department of Public Health says the illness might be related to a virus, the truth is no one really knows.

These otherwise healthy children have experienced rapid physical deterioration, sometimes after having a common respiratory illness from which they have recovered. Their symptoms are polio-like and yet they do not have polio, which has been eradicated in the United States. Further, none of the children has traveled abroad.

Scans of the afflicted children’s spines show damage that mimics the damage commonly seen in the spines of polio victims. So far, the only clue that seems to bridge any logical connection to the poliovirus is the respiratory illness that some of the children had before becoming mysteriously ill. Dr. Glaser has reported that two of the sick children tested positive for enterovirus-68. This is a virus that is associated with respiratory illness but, and herein lies the one clue, it has been linked to polio-like illnesses as well. Still, despite the best efforts of the medical community there is simply no conclusive evidence to explain this medical mystery in California.

Pediatric neurologist, Dr. Keith Van Haren, from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital is going to present the cases of five of the 25 California children affected by the polio mimic to the American Academy of Neurology in Philadelphia. All five of the children deteriorated so rapidly that they had full paralysis in one or more limbs within two days. Even after six months, not a single child has regained limb function. The best that Dr. Van Haren can offer is that he is certain the illness is not polio. In fact, all of the afflicted children were vaccinated against polio.

One parent, whose daughter Sofia was the first known case of the polio mimic illness in 2012, has spoken about how her daughter was in the process of reaching for a toy when she lost the use of her arm completely. Sofia had previously been to the intensive care unit at a children’s hospital in Oakland, California and doctors there had diagnosed her with asthma. The child recovered from that incident and was at a follow-up doctor’s visit when her arm became fully paralyzed. Sofia has two older brothers who remain completely healthy. Like the doctors, the family has no answers but they definitely have experienced the trauma and loss that this mysterious illness as wrought on their little girl.

There was a terrible time in the United States when infections from polio paralyzed almost 20,000 people a year. Most of these victims were young children and it was not until a vaccine was developed that polio was finally eradicated. The mysterious illness that is a devastating mimic of polio, but is not polio, has medical researchers and physicians desperately trying to solve the puzzle. In the meantime, there are concerns that more cases will arise and while the chance of another medical epidemic on the level of polio are extremely slim, parents in California really want an answer to this mystery.

By Alana Marie Burke
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