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How to Tell If Your Kid Has the Rare Disease “Acute Flaccid Myelitis”

AFM is expected to make a comeback this year. Be prepared for when it does.

Every two years, a rare but dangerous disease infects kids across the country. This polio-like disease is called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), and it lands 98 percent of patients in the hospital. Over half of kids will end up in an intensive care unit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If not treated early, it can kill young children or leave them paralyzed for life. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms of AFM is crucial to getting your kid to the hospital in time, but this, of course, is complicated by COVID. 

The most noticeable symptom to keep a lookout for is sudden limb weakness. If your child abruptly has trouble using their arms or legs, get to the emergency room pronto. Children with AFM may also feel like their limbs are in pain or are numb, and they may have trouble walking, according to the CDC. They may experience neck or facial weakness, difficulty swallowing or talking, headache, and back or neck pain.

Many children have a fever or some sort of respiratory illness before they develop AFM. This is because AFM is caused by a range of viruses, though experts haven’t fully pinned down the cause. The strongest link seems to be with a specific type of enterovirus — a type of virus that causes symptoms resembling a cold.

Don’t let COVID-19 scare you away from the emergency room if you suspect your child has AFM. Many hospitals separate patients with suspected COVID-19 and those who have non-COVID emergencies. And don’t delay your visit if your child has symptoms, even if they seem mostly fine. Their condition can decline rapidly.

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Acute flaccid myelitis mostly affects younger children, according to CNN. The average of children affected is five years old. Most cases pop up between August and November in even years, though a few cases strike in odd years too. The condition is rare and infected 238 children in 2018, though cases have risen every two years for the past several cycles, according to CNN. “AFM is a priority for CDC as we prepare for a possible outbreak this year,” Thomas Clark, the deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases, told reporters.

The best way to prevent AFM is to follow the same guidelines recommended for preventing COVID-19 transmission: wear a mask, wash your hands, clean surfaces, and social distance.