A rare, polio-like disease is emerging in California: what you need to know

Correction 28/02/14: The original article states that polio has been eradicated from all countries except for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.  An outbreak of polio was also detected in Syria in late 2013. Cases have also occurred recently in Cameroon and Somalia.

Over the past 18 months, up to 20 young children in California have fallen ill with a polio-like disease.  The major symptom is paralysis.  This potential outbreak is concerning for several reasons: polio was eliminated in the United States years ago, and all of the children had been vaccinated against polio.  A team of researchers has been investigating the new cases, with research still ongoing according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.  Public health officials and researchers warn that the cases are extremely rare, but whether they are isolated or if they indicate an impending full-blown outbreak is still unclear.

Here is what you should know now:

Is this a polio outbreak?

No.  Thanks to vaccination programmes, polio no longer exists in most countries.  Polio has not been seen in the United States since 1979 .  The virus responsible for the current illness has been identified as enterovirus-68 (EV-68) in a detailed analysis of five cases.  Along with the polio virus, EV-68 belongs to the enterovirus family.  Enteroviruses commonly have cold-like symptoms and can carry a risk for nerve problems and paralysis.

What are the symptoms?

Doctors suspect that the initial symptoms are similar to that of a cold, but so few children have fallen ill that it’s difficult to establish a common thread of disease progression among them.  The cases have all been diagnosed at a later stage, which makes it difficult to identify what the early symptoms are.  Paralysis of at least one limb is common to all children who have fallen ill with EV-68.

What exactly is going on?

A physician and researcher at Stanford University, Dr Keith Van Haren, and his colleagues began noticing some children unusually falling ill with a polio-like disease in their medical centres.  Dr Van Haren notified the California Department of Public Health, which has been monitoring the cases.  They have not yet identified any potential cause of the virus common to all of the children who have fallen ill. Samples from around 20 children with polio-like symptoms that were submitted to the California’s Neurologic and Surveillance Testing Program are still being analysed for presence of the EV-68 virus, and the public health department is still monitoring potential causes.  In sum, it’s still early days.

Should I be worried?

In short, no.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not looking country-wide for cases of EV-68, so there is no national response needed at this point.  Dr Van Haren has stated:

 We want to temper the concern, because at the moment, it does not appear to represent a major outbreak but only a rare phenomenon.

If you don’t have children and don’t live in California, then there is probably no need to worry.  If you are interested, keep following the news as more information is sure to come through as researchers find out more.  If you do have children, this point made by Dr Van Haren is important:

We would like to stress that this syndrome appears to be very, very rare.  Anytime a parent sees symptoms of paralysis in a child, the child should be seen by a doctor right away.

There you have it.  We may be watching an emerging new disease outbreak in real time, or, more optimistically, we may be sensitively monitoring isolated cases of a rare disease.  Either way, the physicians whose sharp judgement picked up these unusual disease cases should be applauded, and are a credit to public health in America.

 

References

Barbara Bronson Gray. Mysterious polio-like illness strikes kids in California. WebMD News [Internet]. 2014 February 23 [cited 2014 February 26]. Available from: http://www.webmd.com/children/news/20140223/mysterious-polio-like-illness-strikes-kids-in-california

James Gallagher. Rare ‘polio-like’ disease reports. The BBC [Internet]. 2014 February 24 [cited 2014 February 26]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26289614

Laila Kearney. Polio-like illness seen in up to 25 California children. Reuters [Internet]. 2014 February 25 [cited 2014 February 26]. Available from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/25/us-usa-california-illness-idUSBREA1O03V20140225

Polio-like disease appears in California children. The CBC [Internet]. 2014 February 24 [cited 2014 February 26]. Available from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/polio-like-disease-appears-in-california-children-1.2549884

Rare polio-like disease strikes five kids in California. Medical News Today [Internet]. 2014 February 14 [cited 2014 February 26]. Available from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/273091.php

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2 Responses to A rare, polio-like disease is emerging in California: what you need to know

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  2. Tricia says:

    Have all the children with this had routine vaccines? I’m curious if its an evolved form of Polio and is gaining virulence in the un-vaccinated set of kids. Having lived in CA I know there is a big movement to not vaccinate, I was given propaganda…. very convincing propaganda.

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