The polio-like illness causing paralysis that struck 236 children last year may have been caused by a viral infection, a new study found.
Cases of the illness, called acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, suddenly surged in 2018, baffling the Centers for Disease Control and doctors. The CDC confirmed 236 out of a reported 385 cases of the mystery syndrome, which would start as a cold and then quickly turn into numbness and paralysis.
Doctors believed that they had narrowed the cause down last October to enterovirus D68, or EV-D68, but they had trouble finding scientific proof to back up their belief, and the CDC did not feel they could definitively say enteroviruses were the source.
But, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, scientists have been able to track the illness back to enterovirus. They analyzed the spinal fluids of 42 kids with AFM, and found that they had antibodies that target enteroviruses, indicating that they are the cause. The team of scientists found antibodies for enterovirus strains D68 and A71 in almost 70 percent of the patients.
“This is circumstantial evidence that this is what’s going on, but it’s a powerful piece of circumstantial evidence,” Dr. Michael Wilson, lead author of the study and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Associated Press.
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One of the researchers, Dr. Riley Bove, a neurologist also from the University of California, San Francisco, has a son who contracted AFM at 4 years old. His symptoms started with a cold and quickly developed into full-body paralysis, even though they rushed him to the hospital. Now, five years later, he is mostly recovered but still deals with some paralysis in his arm, shoulder and neck.
This new discovery, along with several other studies published this summer, should help researchers create a vaccine and a treatment plan.
“If you don’t have a cause, you can’t have a vaccine,” Bove said.
Cases of AFM typically start in the late summer to early fall. According to the CDC, there have been 22 confirmed cases in 2019.