AFM: What is Acute Flaccid Myelitis

Depending on where you get your news, or even if you get your news, you may or may not have heard of AFM. Also known as acute flaccid myelitis, this super rare but also super scary syndrome has made another appearance this year. I want to shed some light on this syndrome, since a lot of the available information in the media is scary.

The media is also referring to this syndrome as a polio-like illness. Let me make it very clear, polio is largely eradicated worldwide thanks to vaccinations. Acute flaccid myelitis is a combination of symptoms that are similar to the symptoms caused by the poliovirus. However, AFM is not associated with a polio outbreak.

AFM is not a new syndrome. But we really don’t know a whole lot about it since it has, historically, been so rare. In 2014 we saw a spike in cases, primarily in kids. It was correlated with enterovirus D68. I say correlated because there really was no causal relationship found when the CDC investigated further. Cases of AFM decreased the next year, but spiked in 2016. Again, no cause was discovered. Now, in 2018, we are seeing another spike. And the media has noticed.

Although there is no age limit for AFM, most of the people affected have been children. And most of these children have had a viral illness before hand. The CDC is looking into viral illnesses, environmental toxins, and even genetic mutations as possible causes.

Here are the main takeaways, as I see it, for AFM:

  1. This is a SUPER rare syndrome. The CDC estimates that less than one in a million people in the United States will get AFM every year. That’s with the increase in cases we have seen in the past few years.
  2. We don’t know exactly why some people develop AFM and others do not. If you’re sick, your doctor can’t tell you if you will get it.
  3. There is no causative agent identified yet. So, having an adenovirus or enterovirus illness does not mean you will develop AFM.
  4. If you or your child have sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes, facial droop, difficulty moving your eyes, drooping eyelids, or difficulty swallowing or talking, please seek medical attention immediately.


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