When I first heard of the terrible polio-like outbreak impacting kids in California, I couldn’t believe it. I worried about the children affected and their families, and then became concerned about my own children. I comforted myself with this admittedly irrational thought: Well, we live 3,000 miles from California, so we should be OK!
Sometimes, as a frightened parent, any little piece of reassurance can help. But really, should I worry when fewer than 25 kids in a state of 38 million people got sick? I decided to do the research for myself before panicking. If you haven’t caught up on all the details of this scary (but rare) illness, here are seven things you should know:
1. Who Suffers From It?
As many as 25 children in California between the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego have been identified as having an illness similar to polio that has caused each patient to become paralyzed in one or more arms and legs in the last 18 months, according to a report by NBC News and information posted online by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford, California.
2. What are the Symptoms?
At least three of the children had respiratory illnesses before paralysis began. The paralysis came on suddenly and reached its severity within two days, according to a statement released by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). The condition is “a new type of acute flaccid paralysis, a disease in which patients quickly and permanently lose muscle function in an arm or leg,” said Dr. Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
3. What Causes It?
Doctors don’t know, but two of the affected children tested positive for enterovirus-68, a rare virus associated with symptoms similar to polio. Dr. Van Haren, who co-authored a new report on the syndrome with Dr. Emmanuelle Waubant of the University of California-San Francisco, said it’s also possible that the disease is autoimmune.
“Thus far, the department has not identified any common causes to suggest that the cases are linked,” Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health, said in a statement to NBC News.
4. Is There a Vaccine or Treatment for It?
So far, no. Dr. Van Haren said the polio vaccine does not protect against the illness. The five children included in Dr. Van Haren’s report were given steroids and other treatments, but “with no apparent clinical benefit,” according to information released by AAN.
5. Should My Child Still Get the Polio Vaccine?
Yes, Dr. Van Haren said. All five children included in Dr. Van Haren’s report had previously been vaccinated against polio, but he stressed “that there is also no evidence that the polio vaccine has any other connection to the disease, and it is still important for children to receive the polio vaccine.”
6. Should You Be Worried About the Risk of Infection for Your Child?
No, officials say.
“We have not found anything at this point that raises any public health concerns,” Dr. Carol Glaser, chief of Encephalitis and Special Investigation Section at the California Department of Public Health, told CNN in an email.
“Our findings have important implications for disease surveillance, testing and treatment,” Dr. Van Haren said in a prepared statement. “We would like to stress that this syndrome appears to be very, very rare.”
7. What Can I Do to Help Keep My Child Safe?
“Any time a parent sees symptoms of paralysis in a child, the child should be seen by a doctor right away,” Dr. Van Haren said.
While Dr. Van Haren and other experts are working on prevention and treatment strategies for the syndrome, for now, doctors advise following the usual common sense measures: wash hands frequently and stay away from those who are ill.
The report on the disease will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology‘s annual meeting in Philadelphia this spring.
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