What is AFM?

Recently, parents have been alarmed by news stories that describe a mysterious neurological condition — one that typically affects children. As with every medical development, some basic knowledge can address those fears and help caregivers know exactly what to look for.

Here, we’ll answer the most common questions fielded by health officials in the wake of the reports:

  • Exactly what is acute flaccid myelitis?
  • What are the symptoms of acute flaccid myelitis in kids, and in general?
  • What treatments are available, and how successful are they?
  • Are there any ways to prevent AFM? What risk factors are within your control?

If you notice the symptoms of AFM in your child, make an appointment with one of our specialists at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

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AFM Defined: What is Acute Flaccid Myelitis?

Acute flaccid myelitis is an extremely rare spinal inflammation disorder that causes severe muscle weakness and limb paralysis, usually in children. This serious neurological condition first made headlines in 2014 when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed 120 total cases across 34 states. During 2016 and recently in 2018, health officials have been concerned by a surge in new cases.

Risk Factors and Symptoms of Acute Flaccid Myelitis in Kids

The term “acute” in medicine means the condition appears abruptly, progresses quickly, and requires urgent care.

Suspected AFM certainly fits this description. Parents and caregivers of children are often first to notice the symptoms, which include:

  • Muscle weakness in the arms and legs, often one side is more affected
  • Drooping facial features
  • Neck stiffness
  • Difficulty speaking, swallowing, or breathing

Doctors can diagnose AFM by checking for abnormalities in the spinal cord gray matter on an MRI.

While more research is needed to determine clear risk factors, AFM has coincided with two types of enterovirus in many (not all) of the confirmed cases. Enteroviruses are known for causing mild, short-lasting illnesses. Occasionally though, they develop into neurologic illnesses like meningitis, encephalitis, and now, acute flaccid myelitis. Other viruses associated with AFM include West Nile virus.

AFM is not known to be contagious; instead, it is considered to be a rare complication of other factors, since it’s triggered by diseases, environment, and genetic variables.

Treatment and Prevention of AFM

There is no specific treatment for acute flaccid myelitis in kids, but supportive care has helped many cases. Some patients make a full recovery, though others need ongoing care.

Most treatments focus on alleviating the symptoms. A neurologist might prescribe occupational or physical therapy. The CDC is actively investigating the spike in cases of AFM and is keeping health care providers updated on relevant developments.

One final bit of good news: You are not powerless.

Watch for the symptoms of acute flaccid myelitis and share this article with other parents and caregivers. The condition may progress quickly, but potential AFM cases can be identified and treated promptly.

Since the exact cause of acute flaccid myelitis is still unknown, the CDC also recommends taking standard precautions against conditions that have coincided with AFM:

  • Wash hands often and properly. Opt for hand sanitizer only when soap and water are not available.
  • Stay current on vaccines, particularly the poliovirus vaccine. Before the Salk poliovirus vaccine (invented at the University of Pittsburgh), there were tens of thousands of cases of paralytic polio per year in the United States.
  • Protect yourself and kids against mosquito bites with protective clothing and mosquito repellent, and avoid stagnant water.

For more questions about acute flaccid myelitis, talk to your doctor. If you notice the symptoms of AFM in your child, make an appointment with one of our specialists at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.