A polio-like illness has affected five children in California, leaving them with paralyzed limbs and not much hope for recovery. Polio has been largely eradicated, thanks to advances in vaccines over the last century, but there are still some viruses that can potentially injure the spine. The American Academy of Neurology will be discussing the case of this small group of children at their 66th annual meeting in Philadelphia in late April.
The children generally report muscle weakness or paralysis after a mild respiratory infection, and all affected by this mystery virus have been vaccinated against polio. In fact, doctors say that they have definitively ruled out polio as the cause for the paralysis, which is leading them to wonder what, exactly, has caused these once-healthy, active kids to suddenly lose function in their limbs.
The patterns of damage in the spine are similar to the patterns found in polio sufferers. Two of the affected children tested positive for enterovirus-68, which is a virus generally associated with respiratory illnesses, but it’s a rare form of the common enteroviruses that generally affect children. Doctors note that currently, there is no cause for alarm, as the instances of the illnesses have been low. Children between the ages of 2 and 16 have fallen prey to the illness since August 2012.
While this polio-like illness has affected five children from California thus far, there has been no real improvement in any of their conditions. Dr. Emmanuelle Waubant, a neurology and pediatrics professor from the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), says that at best, patient recovery from the illness has been “marginal”, with the worst part of the paralysis setting in two days after the onset of the illness and limited, if any, recovery shown after six months.
Waubant initially became concerned when she saw a child with sudden paralysis come into her clinic, and when another doctor told her he had seen another child with similar symptoms. When she looked through a larger database, she and the other doctor realized that there had been five children, all from the San Francisco Bay area, who had contracted this mysterious illness. There have been similar cases reported in Australia and Asia in children of much the same age.
Waubant also noted that viruses come and go with no promise of predictability. She says, however, that it is important for the public at large to improve their awareness of illnesses such as this mystery polio-like illness. It is the hope of medical professionals everywhere that, should the public at large become more aware about the illness afflicting these – and potentially other – members of the public, others can be prevented from getting ill as well.
Polio used to affect 20,000 people yearly until it was completely wiped out in the US and very nearly eradicated through the rest of the world. While this polio-like virus that has affected California children between the ages of 2 and 16 may ultimately disappear, Wabant says, as is the case with many viruses, it is possible that the virus can spread as well.
By Christina St-Jean