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Six Minnesota kids suffer rare, polio-like disorder

October 5, 2018

State health officials have issued an alert to doctors after six Minnesota children were diagnosed with a rare, virus-linked disorder that causes reduced mobility or paralysis in the arms and legs.

All six cases of Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) have been reported since Sept. 20, prompting the Minnesota Department of Health to ask doctors to be on the lookout for the disorder, which has severe consequences but mysterious origins.

It is very rare and it is certainly something were taking very seriously, said Kris Ehresmann, who directs the Health Departments infectious disease section. Its a very devastating situation for the children and their families, she said.

The disease attacks the nervous system via the spinal cord. Symptoms usually include a sudden onset of arm or leg weakness and loss of muscular reflexes, but can also include drooping eyelids, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing.

AFM came to the attention of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 after clusters of cases were discovered in Colorado and California and linked to the spread of an enterovirus known as EV-D68.

Since that time, states have reported 362 total cases to the CDC, some of which had no viral presence and some of which seemed linked to other West Nile-type viruses.

The six Minnesota children, all 10 and younger, were hospitalized due to their conditions. They come from the Twin Cities, central Minnesota and northeastern Minnesota.

Ehresmann said she hopes that closer study of the children and any other cases uncovered through the latest alert to doctors could uncover common causes.

Were looking into any kind of commonality, but at this point ... we dont have anything to wrap up in a bow, she said.

The cases arent even verified by lab test results. Ehresmman said its the constellation of symptoms that ties them together.

The Health Department, which does not disclose identities of people in such outbreaks, has been helping connect the families and their doctors with physicians in other states who have already confronted the syndrome.

One of the families contacted the Star Tribune directly.

James Hill said his son suffered typical cold and flu symptoms at the start of the school week three weeks ago. By the end of the week, he was vomiting and stayed home. By the weekend, his left arm had stiffened up badly.

Hill said he and the other parents of sickened children have come together and hope to warn others of the risk. This disease leaves children paralyzed, sometimes in one limb, sometimes throughout the whole body, he said.

While this is the largest cluster to be reported in Minnesota, it is not the first in the state. Minnesota also had three cases in 2014, and anywhere from zero to one case every year since. Nationally, most cases have been reported each year in September.

AFM remains rare, afflicting less than one in a million children.

In addition to viruses, health officials suspect the syndrome is linked to unknown genetic and environmental factors. A variety of treatments have been tried, including steroid medications and immunoglobulin infusions to boost the immune system.

With the origins of AFM unclear, Ehresmann said the best protection comes through common strategies used to prevent all kinds of viral illnesses washing hands, covering mouths before coughing, staying home when ill and keeping up to date on vaccinations.

The CDC has been collaborating with researchers nationally to understand AFM, to estimate how many cases occurred before 2014, and to determine why cases increased substantially starting that year.

Jeremy Olson 612-673-7744

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