OLYMPIA, Wash. — A rare nervous system disorder has left six children paralyzed.
The condition is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, which attacks the nervous system, particularly the spinal cord, and can lead to arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle reflexes.
The Washington Department of Health said Wednesday that the children are 6 or younger. They had symptoms of a respiratory illness in the week before developing symptoms of AFM.
The first five possible cases affected children in King, Pierce, Lewis and Snohomish counties. The newest case is in Skagit County.
“At this point, there isn’t evidence that would point to a single source of illness among these cases,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state infectious disease epidemiologist at the Department of Health. “We’re working closely with medical providers and public health agencies. We’ll continue to investigate and share information when we have it.”
Specialists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control will confirm the diagnoses. The CDC says the condition is not new, but there’s been an increase in cases starting in 2014.
For the first nine months of this year, 38 people in 16 states have been confirmed to have AFM.
There was a cluster of nine cases of AFM in Washington state back in 2016 and three cases last year. One case was reported earlier this year.
The cause of the condition is unknown. The key symptom to look for is weakened limbs and loss of feeling in the arms or legs.
The Department of Health issued the health notice on Wednesday:
The children are being evaluated for AFM, a rare condition that affects the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord. Symptoms typically include sudden weakness in one or more arms or legs, along with loss of muscle tone and decreased or absent reflexes. AFM can cause a range of types and severity of symptoms, but the commonality among them is a loss of strength or movement in one or more arms or legs. The cause of any individual case of AFM can be hard to determine, and often, no cause is found. CDC specialists will make the final determination if these cases are AFM.
Some viruses and germs have been linked to AFM, including common germs that can cause colds and sore throats, and respiratory infections. It can also be caused by poliovirus and non-polio enteroviruses, mosquito-borne viruses (such as West Nile virus or Zika virus) and possibly by non-infectious conditions.
While there are no specific recommendations for avoiding AFM, you can help protect yourself from some of its known causes by: washing your hands often with soap and water, avoiding close contact with sick people, and cleaning surfaces with a disinfectant, especially those that a sick person has touched. Staying update on recommended immunizations is also important to avoiding vaccine preventable illnesses.