Meet AFM: The Baffling New Disease Some Doctors Call the "New Polio"

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Parents and medical professionals have something else to worry about these days – a troubling new disease that can start with a common cold and end in paralysis.

The condition is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, but it’s also commonly being referred to as “the new polio,” since it is reminding people of the viral disease that paralyzed thousands of people in the 1950s. Like polio, AFM attacks the central nervous system, and it can cause muscle weakness like facial drooping, paralysis, and trouble swallowing or breathing.

In some cases, children have woken up with a side of their mouth or an eye drooping, or have suddenly become unable to lift up a spoon to eat their breakfast. With lengthy and specialized rehabilitation, many children have been able to improve, but some remain at least partially paralyzed.

It’s not a completely new disease. But in 2014, there were 120 people reported cases of it, strikingly more than in years before. More cases have been reported since then, with 228 people hit last year.

Why is AFM Reminding Doctors of Polio?

AFM is a chilling reminder of the 1950s polio outbreak that left children around the world paralyzed or dead. The disease can cause complications including temporary or permanent paralysis, skeletal deformities and respiratory issues.

There is no cure for polio, but treatment like physical and occupational therapy and pain relief can often help patients manage their symptoms and eventually return to their regular lives. In fact, one of the country’s most famous presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, contracted polio when he was 39 years old. He went on to become a powerful president, but ruled largely from a wheelchair. Since it was an era before all appearances were televised, FDR hid his reliance on a wheelchair from much of the American public throughout his presidency.

Thanks to a massive public health campaign and a vaccine developed by a team led by Jonas Salk in the early 1950s, polio has been almost entirely eradicated across the world.

But back in 1952, the United States faced one of the scariest outbreaks it had ever seen. That year, more than 58,000 people, mostly children, contracted the disease. Sometimes, they were sent away to treatment facilities where they were hooked up to intimidating contraptions like iron lungs, kept away from their families for months at a time. During the epidemic, more than 20,000 people were left with some type of paralysis, and more than 3,000 lost their lives.

The outbreak had almost as big a psychological toll in the United States as it did a physical one, striking fear into parents that their child would be the next to fall ill, be taken away and perhaps end up paralyzed or dead. Panic ensued, and authorities closed places like public swimming pools and movie theaters where the disease could spread. Only the success of the vaccine was able to finally quell fears.

Will AFM Get As Bad as Polio?

Many medical professionals are confident that the outbreak won’t be as serious as the polio one. For one, the number of people who contract AFM is still considered low. It’s affecting hundreds of kids, not tens of thousands.

But there’s no doubt that doctors need to learn more about what causes it and the best ways to treat it. Some believe there’s a connection between AFM and other viruses, since some kids have come down with AFM after having a different minor respiratory illness or fever. But there's no direct connection so far, and many doctors are pushing for federal funding to study the disease more deeply.

With so little concrete knowledge about AFM, it’s difficult for doctors to offer general guidelines about prevention and treatment. But they encourage everyone to practice healthy habits, such as washing your hands with warm water and soap, and to seek specialist treatment immediately if you notice any of the symptoms of AFM.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.

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