Jacksonville boy battles paralyzing illness found in children

Acute flaccid myelitis confirmed in 22 states, including Florida, Georgia

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. health officials on Tuesday reported a jump in cases of a rare paralyzing illness in children, and said it seems to be following an every-other-year pattern.

At least 62 cases have been confirmed in 22 states in 2018, and at least 65 additional illnesses in those states are being investigated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar waves of the same illness occurred in 2014 and 2016.

A representative from Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville confirmed a current case is being treated there.

CDC officials said they haven't found the cause. Some possible suspects, such as polio and West Nile virus, have been ruled out. Another kind of virus is suspected, but it's been found in only some of the cases.

"This is a mystery so far," the CDC's Dr. Nancy Messonnier said in a call Tuesday with reporters.

About 90 percent of the cases are children who have suffered muscle weakness or paralysis, including in the face, neck, back or limbs. The symptoms tend to occur about a week after they had a fever and respiratory illness.

It is "a pretty dramatic disease," but fortunately most kids recover, Messonnier said.

Health officials call the condition acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). According to the CDC, AFM is a serious condition commonly seen in children that causes weakness in the arms or legs. The CDC would not release a list of the states reporting probable or confirmed cases. But some states have previously announced clusters, including Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, New York and Washington.

Jennifer Greagor told News4Jax her 5-year-old son Jack started showing symptoms about two years ago. She said there was no warning.

"He just all of a sudden said, 'My legs hurt. Can you please carry me?' That was the first clue something was really wrong," Greagor said.

After their fourth visit to a neurologist, she learned her son was suffering from AFM. The boy now relies on a wheelchair to get around.

"It was devastating. My son was perfectly healthy, and he was our first born running around all the time, happy, smart," Greagor said. "It’s a nightmare.”

Greagor said Jack has movement in his fingers, toes and legs, but can’t moves his arms. He can only hold his head up for a short period of time, relies on a ventilator to breathe and uses a feeding tube.

Jack attends physical therapy at Brooks Rehabilitation Center in Orange Park four days a week. It's something therapists said he will deal with his entire life. Greagor is hoping more research will help doctors discover what causes the illness.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has reported three cases of AFM this year. The Florida Department of Health said one case has been reported this year.

The cases in 2014 and 2016 were partly attributed to particular strains of respiratory germs called enteroviruses, which spread the most in the summer and fall.

Most people infected with enteroviruses suffer only minor symptoms like cough and runny nose. And though enteroviruses have been detected in some paralysis cases, it hasn't been found in others, CDC officials say.

Lacking an established cause, health officials confirm cases through a review of brain scans and symptoms.

About 120 confirmed cases were reported in 2014. Another 149 were reported in 2016. In 2015 and 2017, the counts of reported illnesses were far lower.

The cases this year seem to be spread across much of the country, as were the earlier two waves. But mysteriously no other country has reported the emerging every-two-years pattern seen in the U.S., Messonnier said.

About the Authors: