At least 6 cases of ‘modern polio’ disease confirmed in greater Pittsburgh
At least six and possibly seven people from Western Pennsylvania are being treated for a rare neurological disease that can lead to permanent paralysis, public health officials said Tuesday.
Acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is a rare condition that affects less than 1 in 1 million people annually in the United States. It’s been dubbed the “modern polio” disease because it can cause lifelong severe muscle weakness, loss of coordination, paralysis and even death.
Five patients who reside in Allegheny County and one Washington County patient are undergoing treatment for confirmed cases of AFM, Allegheny County health department records show.
An additional Beaver County patient is suspected of having AFM, health officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reviewing the case.
“At this time, no connection between cases has been established,” the county health department said in an alert posted to its website. “All five of the patients who reside in Allegheny County are from different municipalities.”
The department did not specify the municipalities in which the patients live nor provide ages or genders.
At least three of the patients are children who sought treatment at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, hospital officials said last month. Updates on their conditions were not available.
Nationwide, the CDC confirmed Tuesday at least 90 cases of AFM in 27 states, with most of the cases affecting children.
Dozens of more AFM cases likely will be reported across the nation in coming months, if this year’s spate resembles the nation’s prior two significant outbreaks, in 2014 and in 2016, said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Adalja emphasized that the likelihood a person will contract AFM remains “exceedingly rare.”
“It seemingly strikes out of nowhere and that can be very scary to the general public when people are using a word like ‘polio,’ ” Adalja said. “This is still not something that is very common or that every child with a cold is going to end up with, that’s important to keep in perspective.”
The condition, which attacks the nervous system, is not contagious from person to person but originates via the likes of a first contracting a virus such as the common cold . It can impair muscle reflexes and cause weakness in arms and legs.
Researchers are grappling with why the vast majority of people who contract the same viruses will never develop AFM whereas a tiny number of people do.
Ninety percent of less than 400 people diagnosed with AFM since 2014 were 18 years old or younger, CDC data show. Their average age was 4.
AFM likely is more common in children because “children tend to have more respiratory viruses in general,” Adalja said.
In 2014, the CDC confirmed at least 120 cases across 34 states in a season that coincided with a sharp rise in severe respiratory illnesses caused by enterovirus D68. Most of the children affected had developed an upper respiratory illness four weeks prior to being diagnosed with AFM.
“It’s most likely triggered by very, very common viruses. The only way to protect yourself is good hygiene by washing your hands a lot and avoiding mosquito bites,” Adalja said.
Parents and people in general should seek immediate medical treatment if a virus leads to limb weakness or prolonged difficulty breathing, Adalja said.
Early response typically involves efforts to figure out the cause, using IV fluids to keep patients hydrated and beginning physical therapy and rehabilitative care. Patients whose respiratory muscles are impacted may require help breathing.
“Most children will get some function back, but some don’t, and the severity of what limbs are affected may vary between child to child,” Adalja said. “There’s not any standardized treatment for it, so it’s really aggressive physical therapy and over time seeing if any function is regained.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.