“Polio-Like” Outbreak: Why Not Having the Answers Is the Scariest Part of Parenting

polio-like disease
What if one day he couldn’t use these fantastically squishy baby fingers?
Photo credit: Heather Neal

The day my son was diagnosed with food allergies, I literally let out an audible sigh of relief. Not because the food he was eating was giving him reflux, asthma, and stomach troubles, but because we had a tangible answer. Having an answer didn’t entirely cure my son, but it gave us something to focus on, an avenue to test, and a plausible path to follow.

The parents of the California children that are facing an unknown, Polio-like illness can’t say the same. Not only are their children sick, but they don’t have an answer as to why.

I rarely watch The Today Show anymore (I consider it a pre-child luxury), but I turned it on this morning while I was tagging the last of my son’s too-small clothes for his school’s consignment sale. While I sat drowning in nostalgia (was he ever really that small?!), an interview clip caught my ear. A mom being interviewed was rehashing her experience with this unknown, paralyzing illness that’s plaguing children on the West Coast. She explained that her daughter was picking a sticker out of the basket at the doctor’s office when suddenly she watched her daughter’s hand go limp. A chill washed over me. As a parent, you never want to think about another parent experiencing anything remotely as frightening as this, and watching something you have no control over definitely qualifies as such.

This was just one mom of the five (and possibly up to 25) moms who have experienced such horror over the last 18 months. At least five children ages 2 to 16 in California have come down with a mysterious illness that seems to be imitating polio, an ailment our generation thought it would never need to worry about. Some of the children have paralysis in a single limb, while others have lost movement of all four. Others still are experiencing weakness in their arms and legs. Can you imagine being a toddler or a teen, and suddenly losing the ability to move an arm or a leg without knowing why? I can’t, and I can’t imagine being one of those moms either.

There are a million unknowns in parenthood. We spend way more time than we should trying to learn all the answers, even if those answers don’t exist in the first place. We worry and fret on a daily, if not hourly, basis, until suddenly something comes along that makes us feel foolish for wasting a single thought on such menial things. This is one of those times. It makes you question every time you let your child out of the bathroom without washing his hands because you were in a hurry, or laughing at the mom who sprays a specially formulated “toy wash” over the entire room after playgroup. You wonder if you really should be putting stuffed animals in the freezer and plastic toys in the dishwasher, ridding them of the invisible disease-carrying germs they’re inevitably covered in. We tend to think of the worst thing that could happen from germs as a cold or the flu. Those aren’t great things, but they’re not the worst ailments in the world. Then an unknown outbreak comes along, and you question everything. What is this illness, and where is it coming from?

While it’s thought that this rare and unusual illness is caused by a virus, doctors aren’t entirely sure. Two kids out of the five documented cases tested positive for a virus called enterovirus-68. Three of the kids had respiratory symptoms before paralysis struck. All five children had polio vaccines. The California Department of Public Health has yet to find anything to link the cases aside from the symptom of sudden paralysis. Most of the news coverage is saying that doctors aren’t sharing this information because they’re worried about an outbreak, but because they want people to be aware.

However, I’m not sure how “being aware” makes anything better. Aware of what? Aware that my child, who wheezes like some of these kids, could suddenly lose the ability to use his arm or leg? That instead of our biggest problem being how two right-handed parents are going to teach a left-handed toddler how to hit a baseball and tie his shoes, we’d have to worry about teaching him to do that with one hand? Or none? Or not to worry about him playing sports at all because one day he may suddenly not be able to use his legs anymore? Of course, that’s taking it to an extreme, and I’m not the kind of person to worry about circumstances that are out of my control, but surrounding this event with publicity and news coverage doesn’t seem to be addressing the problem of what’s causing this disease.

To me, it seems more likely that it will cause paranoia and worry and distrust (of doctors or vaccines — unwarranted, though plausible), especially for those families who live in California or cities closer to the documented cases. The most troubling part to me as a mom who’s distanced from the event is that doctors don’t seem to have a preventative message to go along with the information. There’s no “lesson” to learn or warning to heed; they don’t know what it is, why it’s suddenly popping up in one region, or where it’s coming from. That means beyond the standard hand-washing and germ-prevention, they don’t really have anything more useful to tell us to help stop the spread of the unknown or discover a diagnosis.

What’s your take on the polio-like scare?

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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