Here’s How Acute Flaccid Myelitis Affects Your Brain and Body

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a disease that has popped up more in 2018 than in past years — and there is a reason many people are concerned. The disease presents polio-like symptoms, although doctors have assured the public this is not polio. But if not, then what is it? Here’s how the disease affects the brain and body, plus who is the most at risk.

sick young girl

AFM has been making many young children sick. | sassiistock/Getty Images

AFM is rare but serious — and it’s getting a lot of attention this year

AFM is a rare disease. However, it’s one that must be taken seriously. The condition itself has been around for many years, but in 2014, the CDC began to see an uptick in diagnoses. Between August 2014 and September 2018, there were 386 confirmed cases of AFM. It is evident how rare the disease is — you have a roughly one in a million chance of contracting the disease in the United States. But a recent spike in cases has led AFM to receive national attention. As of October 2018, there had been 62 cases of AFM reported in 22 states so far for the year.

AFM causes nervous system issues that lead to muscle paralysis

The first symptoms of AFM show themselves as muscle weakness in the limbs. It comes on suddenly and can affect both the arms and legs equally. It also results in a loss of reflexes and muscle tone. Although arm or leg weakness is the most common symptom, other problems can occur, too, especially with the face. Facial drooping or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, or trouble with swallowing and speech are all additional symptoms related to AFM, the CDC reports.

AFM causes a problem in the brain and body’s nervous system, which leads to this unexpected muscle weakness. At the moment, experts don’t understand much about the disease except its short-term effects on patients.

It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of AFM, but it’s most common in young children

The uptick in cases has baffled researches because they’ve had a difficult time pinpointing where the disease comes from. It has been suggested that the West Nile Virus could lead to the onset of AFM, but more research is needed to tell. Doctors are urged to report any cases of AFM they might diagnose, since case reports will assist the CDC in figuring out where the abnormally high number of cases stems from. Some research suggests adenoviruses may also play a role in the onset of AFM.

Most cases of AFM are in people under 18. The average age for a diagnosis is four years old.

There is no specific treatment, but there are preventive measures you can take

Since doctors aren’t certain where the disease comes from, it has been hard to create a specific treatment. However, the effects of AFM typically do go away with physical or occupational therapy. Over time, patients should get the proper muscle tone and function back in their limbs. But there has been no conclusive study about the long term effects of AFM. People with polio, for example, tended to experience muscle weakness once again at a much older age. For now, experts aren’t sure if AFM patients have the same fate.

Researchers are focused on figuring out the cause of AFM, but until a cure is found, doctors suggest people do their best to protect themselves from mosquitoes. Wear bug spray and protective clothing if you’re outdoors. The CDC also suggests washing your hands frequently, although they note that it may or may not make a difference in whether you contract AFM.

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