A polio-like illness that has mysteriously affected at least 500 people — sometimes causing paralysis — could spread across the US in the next few years, medical researchers fear.
The condition, known as acute flaccid myelitis, has struck in at least 46 states in the last four years. More than 90 percent of those who come down with the illness are children, according to the CDC.
Since the CDC first began researching the affliction in 2014, AFM has flared up in waves — infecting far more people in 2016 and 2018 than in 2015 and 2017.
Some researchers are now worried the disease could return with force in 2020, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The CDC has confirmed 182 cases of AFM so far this year. Outbreaks have occurred most frequently in the summer and fall.
Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, said in a conference call with reporters last month that the CDC is still unsure of the cause.
“It may be one of the viruses that we’ve already detected,” Messonnier said. “It may be a virus that we haven’t yet detected. Or it could be that the virus is kicking off another process and it’s actually triggering through an autoimmune process.”
In most cases, AFM starts out with cold-like symptoms and progresses to paralysis, typically within a week. Like polio, AFM only causes paralysis in some patients.
Viruses known as enterovirus A71 and D68 have been detected in many patients and are commonly cited as possible causes.
“It is impossible to say if we’ll have any real answers [by 2020], because this a complex public health challenge,” Thomas A. Clark, the epidemiologist leading the CDC’s response to AFM, told the Dallas Morning News. “Until we fully understand what causes AFM, we can’t help protect people against it.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has requested $ 1 billion in funding for the CDC’s newly formed task force, which it hopes will help prepare for another possible outbreak.