Is polio, of all things, back with a vengeance?
But a remarkably similar illness in the same virus family is affecting more and more children in the US, Australia and Asia, and scientists are not sure why.
The CDC recently confirmed that there have been 116 confirmed cases of a sickness called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, a condition that affects the nervous system and causes a polio-like illness.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains in its report:
"[i]t affects the nervous system, specifically the area of the spinal cord called gray matter, which causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak. CDC has been thoroughly investigating the AFM cases that have occurred since 2014, when we first noted a large number of cases being reported."
The disease's symptoms are distressing, including drooping face and eyelids, difficulty with eye movement and swallowing, and slurred speech. In the most severe instances, the disease can affect patients' breathing.
"While it usually affects the limbs," explains the Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Joseph Styron, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, "in rare cases, AFM can affect the muscles in the respiratory system, making it difficult for children to breathe. This can be life-threatening."
On social media, many people were distressed by these ominous developments:
@ajc E coli romaine lettuce outbreaks and now polio-like illness outbreaks, what next?!— Simonne (@Simonne) 1543372446.0
@CNN it’s in every state surrounding mine https://t.co/D0Ckec9RJJ— jon jetson ✈️ (@jon jetson ✈️) 1543354911.0
@USATODAY Ataxia and dysarthria. Those are symptoms also found in stroke victims. Obviously this is very serious. I… https://t.co/clDlbKM5Vz— Heidi (@Heidi) 1543424730.0
But the overwhelming majority of reactions seemed to be from the "anti-vaxxer crowd."
@ajc This is being caused by the IPV vaccine. My husband and I both have backgrounds does Public Health specialists… https://t.co/vvlAq9m0oU— Kristen Meghan (@Kristen Meghan) 1543371482.0
@CNN Let’s just remind everyone that this is listed as a side effect on the polio and Hib vaccines.— Rory Vanlandingham (@Rory Vanlandingham) 1543358241.0
Along with other conspiracy theorists.
@CNN So is everybody just gonna act like they don't know the FDA released this outbreak on purpose to help with population control???— porque (@porque) 1543364097.0
@LindaTheresaPr2 @ajc Don’t forget about those illegal mosquitoes entering our country, too! Zika, West Nile, etc.— Nat (@Nat) 1543366658.0
Inspiring angry reactions from others, who trust medical science.
@CNN vaccinate your fucking kids you weird “anti-norm” people— Brandon Friedel (@Brandon Friedel) 1543354868.0
@CNN Gee, ya think HHS is questioning its decision to slash Centers for Disease Control & National Institutes of He… https://t.co/kpFCdHwFJT— Runs4Brains (@Runs4Brains) 1543357872.0
While he can't vouch for the other conspiracy theories, Dr. Styron cautions that there is absolutely no evidence for a link between AFM and vaccines.
"Parents should know that AFM is not linked to any type of any vaccination," he explains, "it affects kids who have not been vaccinated as well as kids who have been."
(That, of course, hasn't stopped the anti-vaxxer crowd from drawing links between the two for years.)
To combat the virus, the CDC announced that it is assembling a task force to further investigate the causes and search for better treatments. CDC director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement:
"This task force will ensure that the full capacity of the scientific community is engaged and working together to provide important answers and solutions to actively detect, more effectively treat, and ultimately prevent AFM and its consequences."