Doctors in California are reporting that a rare “polio-like syndrome” has caused some level of paralysis in as many as 25 children in the state. Considering the fact that polio — a crippling disease that can be fatal in children — was eradicated in the United States over three decades ago, the news is concerning medical professionals.
“What’s we’re seeing now is bad. The best-case scenario is complete loss of one limb, the worst is all four limbs, with respiratory insufficiency, as well. It’s like the old polio,” Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist in Palo Alto, CA who treated several of the children after their symptoms first emerged in 2012, told USA Today.
However, this infection is definitely not polio. The affected children have all received their appropriate vaccinations and tested negative for the disease. There are other types of viruses that can cause paralysis, and several of the children tested positive for “enterovirus-68,” a strain that’s been linked to similar polio-like symptoms among kids in Australia and Asia. But not all of them did, so scientists still aren’t sure what’s causing this outbreak.
Doctors are reiterating that the cases remain isolated, and other parents in the state shouldn’t panic. But researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are still working to identify the source of the mystery illness, and are asking doctors to remain on the lookout for similar symptoms. The researchers will present their initial case studies at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in April.
Van Haren believes that although the cases have been isolated to California so far, more may start popping up in other states once doctors become aware that they should be tracking these symptoms. Since many younger doctors weren’t practicing medicine back when polio was prevalent in the United States, that involves educating them about what to look for. “My goal is to get the word out to other neurologists, to make them aware of this,” he noted.
Polio infections used to paralyze up to 20,000 people in the U.S. each year. Thanks to successful vaccination efforts, however, the deadly disease has been nearly wiped out across the globe. But now, polio is re-emerging in conflict zones where vaccination programs are in danger — and it’s slowly starting to spread again in countries like Syria and Afghanistan. Even though the cases in California aren’t polio, public health officials are taking the opportunity to remind parents to make sure their kids get vaccinated against the illness.
It’s been a particularly busy time for public health officials in California lately. The state has been grappling with an especially high number of flu cases this season, as a nasty strain of H1N1 — popularly known as “swine flu” — is unexpectedly killing off young and healthy residents. Earlier this month, San Francisco’s public transportation system had a measles scare after one unvaccinated commuter potentially exposed thousands of people to the highly contagious disease. And the Golden State is also facing several public health dangers posed by the current drought, as nearly 200 communities rely on underground water sources that may be contaminated.