CDC tracking spike in a rare spinal cord illness since 2014

Officials with both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments are concerned about cases of a polio-like illness that has mostly afflicted children.

The CDC has been tracking cases of the rare condition, which is called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, since a noted spike in 2014. The illness affects the patient's spinal cord and can cause paralysis.

Health officials in Minnesota have identified six children with AFM in just the last two weeks. Usually, the state sees zero to one case a year.

From August 2014 through September 2018, the CDC recorded 362 cases of AFM across the country. The illness could have many causes, officials said, such as viruses, environmental toxins, and genetic disorders.

"The patients' symptoms have been most similar to complications of infection with certain viruses, including poliovirus, non-polio enteroviruses, adenoviruses, and West Nile virus," the CDC said. "To date, no pathogen (germ) has been consistently detected in the patients' spinal fluid; a pathogen detected in the spinal fluid would be good evidence to indicate the cause of AFM since this condition affects the spinal cord."

The CDC does not know what caused the 2014 increase in annual cases of AFM.

"We have not yet determined who is at higher risk for developing AFM, or the reasons why they may be at higher risk," the agency said. "We do not yet know the long-term effects of AFM."

Symptoms include muscle weakness, droopy eyelids, problems swallowing, and slurred speech. In extreme cases, paralysis and death can occur.

"[S]ome patients diagnosed with AFM have recovered quickly, and some continue to have paralysis and require ongoing care," the CDC said.