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Doctor: Unknowns About AFM Can Be 'Scary,' But Mysterious Illness Is Extremely Rare

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - The number of confirmed or suspected cases of Acute Flaccid Myelitis being handled in Pittsburgh rose to six Thursday -- one from Washington County and five from Allegheny County. There is no known connection between any of the cases.

Doctors at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh won't talk about the children they are treating, but the pictures of children across the country unable to use their arms and legs, betrayed by their bodies, are heartbreaking.

"Yes, this is scary," Dr. John Williams, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children's Hospital, said. "Yes, it can be a very serious disease, but it's extremely rare."

One in a million, he says. Acute Flaccid Myelitis is a disease that attacks the use of a child's arms and legs and can even impact breathing.

"We don't know why only a very very few develop the nerve problem from the virus," Williams said.

There is no known connection between the cases across the country, and Williams and the Centers for Disease Control say AFM seems to peak every two years at about 150 cases nationwide.

While the experts have no idea what causes it, they know it comes from one of the more than 100 enteroviruses. There is no known cure or vaccine.

Williams says when a child gets AFM, "it comes on over a couple of days and it usually shows up as weakness of one or both arms or legs."

Most parents know the signs of a virus, but Williams cautions, "if a child has fever or runny nose or diarrhea, none of that should raise concern for AFM. It is only if the child has weakness in arms and legs."

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(Photo Credit: KDKA)

"The major treatment we provide [for AFM] is supportive care for the children to make sure they are breathing and blood pressure and circulation are OK and that they are getting nourishment and hydration," Williams said. "Most kids do experience some recovery and some will have full recovery. But a lot of kids are left with residual weakness. Which can be from weakness in one arm or leg and in some case severe where they are not able to walk."

Williams says like all virus-born illnesses, it spreads from person to person.

"If somebody is sick, they should sneeze into their elbow. And hand hygiene. Most germs are spread by hand contact," Williams said.

The doctors treating the children are working along with the CDC to unravel the mystery of AFM.

"We really don't know the difference between why some children are more effected than others and why some children have more of a recovery than others," Williams said.

But he points out that a child faces more of a health risk from the flu or when they ride in a car. Hundreds of children will die this year from the flu and car accidents while AFM mortality is low.

"Very rarely is it deadly. In 2014, no children died from it. In 2016, one child died from it. Parents and family should remember that it's very rare," Williams said.

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