What You Need to Know About the Polio-Like AFM Virus

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AFM

Although the United States has been polio-free for more than three decades, there’s a different condition on the rise called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) that’s causing strikingly similar symptoms. Sadly, most of the cases have occurred in children.

AFM affects part of the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord, and causes weakness in the muscles and reflexes. AFM isn’t new, but cases of it have been slowly increasing since 2014.

There are a variety of possible causes for AFM, including viruses, such as poliovirus and West Nile virus, and environmental toxins. But in many cases, doctors aren’t able to pinpoint what caused the patient to develop the condition.

What Are the Symptoms of AFM?

People with AFM develop symptoms such as:

  • Sudden weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes in the arm or leg
  • Facial weakness or droopiness
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Slurred speech or swallowing problems

“In severe cases, some people experience respiratory failure when the muscles involved in breathing become too weak,” says Max Wiznitzer, MD, a pediatric neurologist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “If you or your child develops any of these symptoms, seek medical care immediately.”

Keeping Your Family Safe

“Since the cause of AFM is not always clear, there’s no sure way to prevent it,” Dr. Wiznitzer says. “Washing your hands with soap and water often throughout the day is always a good idea to prevent illness and avoid spreading germs to others. Make sure that everyone in your family is up-to-date on vaccines, especially the polio vaccine. Protect your family from mosquitos by using insect repellant, staying inside at dusk and dawn, and removing standing water near your home to prevent West Nile virus.”

There’s no question that AFM is a serious and concerning condition. However, rest assured that even though rates are rising, it’s still extremely rare. Since 2014, there have been about 400 cases of AFM across the United States – fewer than one in 1 million people in the United States get AFM every year.

 “If you have any questions about preventing illness, be sure to discuss them with your pediatrician, ” Dr. Wiznitzer says.

A Handwashing Primer for Your Family

Handwashing is one of the simplest steps you can take to avoid illness. Here’s how to do it properly:

  • Use warm water if it’s available.
  • Wet your hands before applying soap. 
  • Rub your soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds. Make sure to wash all surfaces well. This includes your wrists, palms, backs of hands and between fingers.
  • Rinse your hands thoroughly to remove all soap.
  • Dry your hands with an air dryer or a clean paper towel.
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