CDC disease detectives still unable to pin down source of mysterious, polio-like illness

Epidemic Intelligence Service officers with the CDC still cannot pinpoint the cause of a paralysis inducing illness, which led to a cluster of hospitalizations among children in Washington state in 2016.

Acute flaccid myelitis is a condition that affects the spinal cord, inciting limb weakness and paralysis. It has previously been linked to strains of several viruses, including West Nile and adenovirus.

In 2014, the CDC confirmed 120 cases of AFM in the United States. These cases occurred concurrently with outbreaks of severe respiratory illness caused by a strain of enterovirus — a virus often associated with the common cold. Prior investigative research conducted by the CDC suggested a potential link between the virus and AFM. After dipping to 21 cases in 2015, AFM cases increased to 96 in 2016. Research presented Monday at the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference in Atlanta has weakened the suspected link between the condition and enterovirus.

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To establish a consistent etiology for AFM, CDC disease detectives compared the clinical and laboratory profiles of the 2014 and 2016 cases. While analysis revealed the 2016 cases to be more severe with an increased likelihood of requiring mechanical ventilation and having more than two limbs affected, a common cause for the 2014 and 2016 cases could not be established.

"We have tested for over 250 different organisms that could be causing this," Tracy Ayers, an investigator with the CDC and the study's lead author said, according to NBC News. "We are also expanding to look at non-infectious diseases."

The CDC will continue to conduct surveillance on AFM cases.

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