New cases of the illness, known as acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), are being reported in children in Minnesota. 

By Stacey Leasca
Updated October 09, 2018

State officials in Minnesota are warning doctors to be on the lookout for a polio-like illness after six children aged 10 and younger became infected within the last few weeks.

The illness, known as acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), affects the nervous system and can come on due to a variety of causes. Perhaps most frighteningly, the illness appears to affect more children than adults. Here’s everything you need to know about AFM and how to help prevent it.

What is AFM?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AFM is a virus that attacks the area of the spinal cord called gray matter. The virus causes the muscles and reflexes in the body become weak. This condition, the CDC noted, is not a new one, however, the organization has seen an increase in cases starting in 2014. But, it’s still incredibly rare, affecting just one in one million people.

What are the symptoms of AFM?

Symptoms of AFM include the sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes. Additionally, some people may experience facial droop, difficulty moving the eyes, difficulty with swallowing or slurred speech. Some people, though rare, may also have a difficult time urinating. As the CDC noted, the most severe symptom of AFM is “respiratory failure that can happen when the muscles involved with breathing become weak. This can require urgent ventilator support (breathing machine). In very rare cases, it is possible that the process in the body that triggers AFM may also trigger other serious neurologic complications that could lead to death.”

How is AFM diagnosed?

Doctors will likely examine areas of the body the patient says are feeling weakened. They may also order x-rays of the spine or even an MRI to get a closer look at the patient’s brain and spinal cord. The disease, however, can be difficult to diagnose as it mimics the symptoms and signs of other diseases, the CDC reported, like transverse myelitis and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

How is AFM spread?

Because AFM is a virus the best protection is the easiest one—wash your hands frequently to prevent infection. However, even that may not be enough as AFM can also come on due to environmental factors and genetic disorders. AFM can also be caused due to poliovirus and non-polio enteroviruses, West Nile virus, and adenoviruses. Using bug spray and protecting against bug bites can help reduce your risk for some of these illnesses as well. There is currently no vaccine to protect against the development of AFM.

How is AFM treated?

Right now there is no cure for AFM. Instead, doctors will treat the symptoms of the illness with steroid medications and immunoglobulin infusion that could help boost a person’s immune system. Neurologists may also recommend physical or occupational therapy to help rebuild strength for arm or leg weakness. According to the CDC, they do not know the long-term prognosis of people with AFM.