NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. The CDC is investigating a mystery childhood illness that is on the rise. So far this year, the CDC says there are confirmed cases in 22 U.S. states. This disease can come on suddenly and cause muscle weakness and paralysis in arms and legs. NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The condition is known as acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM for short. It can start with symptoms such as droopy eyelids and difficulty swallowing. The CDC has confirmed 62 cases in the last few months, mostly in young children. Since the CDC began tracking the disease four years ago, a total of 386 cases have been confirmed. One case was a 7-year-old boy, Evan. His mother, Susan Coyne, says her son came down with an ear infection. This was back in the fall of 2014.
SUSAN COYNE: So I took him to the pediatrician, and she put him on an antibiotic.
AUBREY: But within a few days, Evan complained of severe pain in his back and legs. He became extremely lethargic and went downhill quickly.
COYNE: He lost total muscle control in both his arms and his legs. You know, one minute you have a healthy kid, and the next minute your kid is totally paralyzed. It was beyond horrifying to us.
AUBREY: It's not clear what caused Evan's sickness, and the CDC's Nancy Messonnier says, unfortunately the cause of this condition is still unknown.
NANCY MESSONNIER: I'm frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven't been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness. We don't know who may be at higher risk for developing AFM or the reasons why they may be at higher risk.
AUBREY: Messonnier says given the rise in cases, the CDC is escalating its response and consulting with a variety of experts to solve the mystery. They do know that some kids who get it have also had viruses such as enterovirus. Another possible risk factor is West Nile virus. But so far, there's no common pathogen that links all the cases.
MESSONNIER: Despite extensive laboratory testing, we have not determined what pathogen or immune response caused the arm or leg weakness and paralysis in most of these patients.
AUBREY: Given that the symptoms are similar to polio, a disease that has been almost completely eradicated, Messonnier pointed out that this is not polio.
MESSONNIER: Right now we know that polio virus is not the cause of these AFM cases. CDC has tested every stool specimen from the AFM patients. None of the specimens have tested positive for polio virus.
AUBREY: The CDC says despite the increase in cases, AFM is a very rare condition affecting fewer than one in a million children. But she says it's good to be aware of the signs and symptoms. Though 90 percent of those affected are children, there are some cases in adults.
MESSONNIER: We recommend seeking medical care right away if you or your child develop sudden weakness of the arms or legs.
AUBREY: And though the CDC can't give any specific information about what's causing AFM, Messonnier says it's good to take general precautions.
MESSONNIER: Parents can help protect their children from serious diseases by following prevention steps like washing their hands, being up to date on recommended immunizations and using insect repellent to prevent mosquito bites.
AUBREY: In the case of Susan Coyne's son, Evan, he's healthy again. He was treated with steroids, and he was in occupational and physical therapy for 18 months.
COYNE: Evan is fully recovered. He has regained all movement and strength in all four limbs.
AUBREY: But this is not always the case. Some kids who've been diagnosed with AFM continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.