Mysterious polio-like illness baffles medical experts while frightening parents

The mysterious polio-like disorder that's striking children around the country is growing, according to an update from federal health officials Tuesday.

The odds of getting the polio-like disease is less than one in a million; however, two cases in the Bay State have been confirmed and four others are under investigation, the Department of Public Health announced.

AFM was first detected in 2014, when 120 cases were confirmed.

More than 90 percent of the cases are in children 18 years and younger.

"Despite a lot of investigation by CDC and our partners, AFM remains a mystery disease", said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases for the CDC.

Beginning in the summer and fall of 2014, an apparent increase in reports of AFM occurred in the United States.

The cause of most of the AFM incidents is unknown, according to the CDC, as are the long-term effects. Messonnier said West Nile virus, which had been listed as a possible cause on the CDC's website, is not causing the illnesses. But officials haven't been able to find a single agent that would explain the clusters of cases that occur around the same time.

It shows distinct abnormalities of the spinal cord gray matter on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Symptoms include arm and leg weakness, loss of muscle tone and reflexes, in addition to facial drooping or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, difficulty with swallowing or slurred speech.

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"We understand that people, particularly parents, are concerned about AFM", she said.

Since officials have been unable so far to determine how the disease spreads, they are starting to count suspected cases as well as confirmed to better anticipate increases over the coming months. So far, the number of cases in 2018 is similar to the number reported in 2014 and 2016, Messonnier said.

Although symptoms resemble polio, no evidence of poliovirus has been found in specimens from any case diagnosed so far, Messonnier said.

Once diagnosed, some patients have recovered quickly, but some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care, Messonnier said. Though AFM has not claimed any lives this year, there was one death in 2017.

Messonnier stressed that while she understands how frightening this situation is for parents, they should remember that the infections are, in fact, rare. Then in 2016, there were 149 confirmed cases. "We recommend seeking medical care right away if you or your child develops sudden weakness of the arms and legs", she said.

The CDC is actively investigating and monitoring disease activity and recommends taking standard prevention measures such as hand-washing, protecting oneself from mosquito bites and staying up-to-date on vaccinations.

Doctors say the most serious cases can lead to respiratory failure.

CNN reached out to health departments in every state; 48 states responded, plus the District of Columbia. States are not required to provide this information to CDC, but they have been voluntarily reporting their data.

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