In the middle of the 20th century, the United States was ravaged by polio, an infectious disease that sometimes entered the central nervous system and ultimately led to paralysis–or worse. While the disease reared its ugly head many times in the course of history, the number of cases (57,628) reported in 1952 signaled the height of the most recent epidemic. Now, more than 50 years after the vaccine killed the disease for good, a disturbingly similar illness has surfaced in California, where reports of a polio-like illness have surfaced.
Thankfully, the number of California children afflicted at this point is not large; as many as 25 cases have been reported since 2012. The first known incident of the modern-day polio illness occurred in two-year-old Sofia Jarvis, who suddenly began to wheeze excessively and have problems breathing in general. Two years later, the now four-year-old Sofia still has occasional trouble breathing, and her left arm is permanently paralyzed.
Very little concrete facts are known about this mysterious new affliction, but one thing is for certain: it is not polio, so at least in a technical medical sense, California is not actually bringing back polio, but rather an oddly similar illness that can only be described as a “polio-like,” something that continues to baffle researchers at this point. The cases so far are few and limited to just the state of California, and it is unclear if more might be occurring in the future, but the early developments are concerning enough to warrant getting the information out.
While the news of this troubling new illness is understandably upsetting, parents are being cautioned not to get too worked up over it. Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist in Palo Alto, California, notes that this condition is exceptionally rare, and not something expected to become a widespread issue. All the same, Van Haren warns parents that the early indicators of this illness are not good, and in fact mimic the very worst of polio’s symptoms: total loss of the use of at least one limb at best, and possibly the loss of all four.
The affliction is said to occur in a very short time frame. Typically preceded by a minor respiratory illness, the symptoms soon get much more serious, leading to weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs. The condition seems to reach its full severity within just two days, giving parents little time to react. In all of the cases so far, none of the children have regained use of the affected limb six months into the study. The swiftness with which the illness advances gives parents sufficient cause to report any development of limb weakness in their child immediately.
Only time will tell if these reported California illnesses are truly a precursor to a polio-like epidemic, and is in fact a modified version of the disease eradicated decades ago. For now, heightened awareness is critical in ensuring the illness does not do more damage than it already has, and with any luck, the last case of this type has already been reported.
By Spencer Hendricks