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Doctors Warn “Polio-Like” Disease Is Infecting U.S. Children

Tabitah Mans - U.S. Air Force / Victoria Arlen

As cases of a rare disease that can cause partial paralysis in children grow, doctors are warning parents to be on the lookout.

By Monday, six cases of children with the autoimmune disease called myelitis had been reported in Minnesota, while another 14 are sick in Colorado.

Because this disease is little-known, but can cause lifetime complications, doctors are raising the alarm.

Polio-Like Symptoms

Myelitis cases
Cases of myelitis reported in two states have health professionals concerned.Jack Braden - U.S. Air Force

The cases reported in Colorado and Minnesota are a distinct type of myelitis called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM.

Myelities is a type of autoimmune disease believed to be triggered by a virus. It prevents the brain and the body's nerves from communication with each other.

Doctors compare the symptoms of AFM to polio, a related disease which is known for causing sometimes permanent muscle damage.

Polio iron lung
A polio patient rests inside an "iron lung" machine in this photo from 1960.CDC - Wikimedia

While polio outbreaks were once widespread, they have been largely controlled through vaccines, In 2016, there were just 37 reported cases of polio.

Another similarity between the two diseases is that, like the polio virus, there is no cure for myelitis.

Some patients are left with long-term disabilities, need to use wheelchairs, or rely on ventilators.

Victoria Arlen physical therapy
Paralympian Victoria Arlen, who had myelitis, used physical therapy to regain control of her legs.Victoria Arlen

But in many cases, children are back in good health after just a year thanks to rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Doctors are still studying the viruses that cause myelitis, but say that cases seem to "spike" in two-year cycles. In 2014 there were 120 confirmed cases, while there were just 22 in 2015.

That means 2018 is probably a "bad year" for the disease, and the CDC reports there are already 38 confirmed cases of myelitis in America.

Doctors warn that recognizing myelitis symptoms quickly is key.

While deaths from myelitis are rare, most patients are under 10 years old, and could die if treatment is delayed. A five-year-old died from symptoms of myelitis in 2016.

Myelitis usually requires hospitalization, but is not fatal in the U.S.Joshua Smith - U.S. Navy

Myelitis cases often begin with flu-like symptoms, before getting progressively worse.

Dizziness, muscle-jerking, and loss of balance are all signs of myelitis, especially when they appear suddenly.

Drooping facial muscles (especially eyelids) and trouble moving the eyes are also cause for concern.

Parents should seek treatment right away if these symptoms develop, especially if children also complain of trouble breathing.

The good news is that common sense and good hygiene can help prevent myelitis cases.

The CDC recommends staying up-to-date on vaccinations, frequent hand washing, covering the mouth during coughs and sneezes, and avoiding sick patients to prevent the spread of myelitis.

"I was terrified. There's no worse feeling than being aware but not being able to communicate or give your family any sign that you're in there."

Dancing with the Stars contestant and former U.S. Paralympian Victoria Arlen knows firsthand how serious myelitis can be.

The star athlete described getting sick at age 11, and gradually losing control of her body. After just two weeks, Arlen says she was completely immobilized.

When I started getting sick I was just confused," she remembered. "I was asking why can't I get out of bed? Why can't my legs move?"

Arlen would spend four years trapped inside her own body, able to see the outside world but not to move or communicate.

She was only saved by a stroke of good luck, when an anti-seizure medication restored control of her eyes, allowing Arlen to blink messages to her parents and doctors.

"I was terrified," she later said. "There's no worse feeling than being aware but not being able to communicate or give your family any sign that you're in there."

After rebuilding her body through intense rehab, Arlen went on to make up for lost time. She won three gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, England, and later cut a rug on Dancing with the Stars.

"I was told I would never walk again but I'm kind of stubborn in that sense," Arlen said. "I mean, you're not God you cant tell me what I can and can't do."

[H/T: Today]

Let's spread this warning to help parents keep their children safe!

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