A rare "polio-like syndrome" has caused paralysis
in about 20 children from across California, according to a report released
Sunday by physicians in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The children, who are between the ages of 3 and 12, developed what is called
acute, or sudden, flaccid paralysis – weakness or loss of muscle tone
resulting from injury or disease of the nerves that stimulate muscles to move.
Although polio has been wiped out across most of the globe, other viruses
can injure the spine, causing paralysis, said Dr Keith Van Haren, author of the
case report and a paediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital,
at Stanford University. The children who have been affected seem to have been
permanently paralysed, he said.
Van Haren said these cases suggest there is a possibility of a new
infectious polio-like syndrome in California.
The illness is not polio. All the victims had been immunised against polio
and tested negative for the presence of the disease, Van Haren explained. And
the disease is rare. "It's not an epidemic," he said. "But it is
something that is concerning."
The culprit could be a virus strain called enterovirus-68 that has been
linked to polio-like outbreaks in children in Asia and Australia, Van Haren
said. But not all of the victims tested positive for that virus, so the cause
of the disease is still unclear.
Some of the children had respiratory or other illnesses before developing
muscle paralysis, but for others muscle weakness was the first symptom.
Van Haren said some victims suddenly developed weakness of one or more limbs
within about 48 hours of becoming sick. MRI
scans showed worrisome changes in the gray matter of the spinal cord.
To help them more effectively fight the disease, the children were given
immunoglobulin and or blood plasma exchange -- without improvement, according
to the authors of the case report.
How was the mysterious illness discovered? Van Haren said that after he
cared for four of five of the first cases that appeared in 2012, he realised
the children's illnesses and resulting paralysis were highly unusual. He
notified the California Department of Public Health, which has helped monitor
the outbreak since.
Problem that is hard to assess
Van Haren and his team reviewed all five polio-like cases among children
whose lab samples had been referred to California's Neurologic and Surveillance
Testing Program from August 2012 to July 2013. He has now included the data
from about 15 additional cases reported since then, which he'll be presenting
at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, held April 26 to May 3 in
Flaccid paralysis -- unlike measles or
paediatric flu deaths, for example -- is not considered a disease or condition
that must be reported to county or state health departments or national
agencies like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because there is no reporting requirement, the scope of the problem is still
hard to assess, explained Dr Carol Glaser, chief of encephalitis and the
special investigations section in the California Department of Public Health.
"We do not know whether these cases represent an increase in cases over
what usually occurs or even if cases are an ongoing or isolated
occurrence," she said.
No common cause identity as yet
Glaser also pointed out that the California Department of Public Health has
not yet identified a common cause for the cases. "At this stage, CDPH has
asked health care providers to report any polio-like cases they might identify
and send specimens so that we can better assess the situation," she said.
On a national level, the CDC also cannot know for sure whether there are
more cases of this polio-like syndrome than they have heard about, or to what
event the illness may be appearing in other states. "It's hard to know if
five or 20 cases in the course of a year or two are significant," said
Jason McDonald, CDC spokesperson. "Acute flaccid paralysis can be the
result of a variety of viral and non-viral causes."
Parents who notice a sudden onset of weakness in their children should see
their paediatrician right away, Van Haren advised. Physicians in the state
should notify the California Department of Public Health any time they see a
child with acute flaccid paralysis that is not due to diseases that affect the
nervous system, such as botulism
syndrome, he added.
For her part, Glaser emphasized that only a very small number of cases have
been identified, with no clear common cause. "Health care providers have
been asked to send information about similar cases so that we can determine
whether or not there is anything unusual about these cases," she said.
Because this case review has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed
journal, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary, CDC's
polio cases down
polio is still around