Five children under 6 have been hospitalized with a sudden limb paralysis that has local, state and national health officials investigating whether it's a serious but rare condition called AFM.

Share story

Five children under the age of 6 in the state have been hospitalized with a sudden limb paralysis that has the Washington State Department of Health, four local public-health agencies and neurologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention working to determine if they are  cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM).

The children are from King, Pierce, Snohomish and Lewis counties, the health department said.

AFM is a serious but rare condition that affects a portion of the spinal cord, causing muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak, according to the CDC.

Most affected by AFM will experience a sudden onset of weakness or paralysis in a limb, but some may also experience drooping face and eye muscles, difficulty swallowing or difficulty moving the eyes, according to the CDC.

“If a parent notices a child with a weak or paralyzed limb, they should go to urgent care or the hospital immediately,” said Julie Graham, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health.

The outcomes for those afflicted are varied, she said, with some patients recovering fully and others dealing with some level of paralysis for the rest of their lives.

In Washington, all of the patients suspected of having AFM are under age 6 and all had symptoms of a respiratory illness in the week before developing symptoms of AFM, the Department of Health reported on Wednesday. Four of the five children had a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, the department said.

Health officials said that a single cause of AFM has not been found and often no cause is found. It has, however, been linked to a number of common germs that cause colds, sore throats and respiratory infections as well as to other viruses, including poliovirus, non-polio enteroviruses and mosquito-borne viruses, such as the Zika virus. Environmental toxins and genetic disorders are also potentially involved in the development of the disease.

CDC specialists will make the final determination as to whether the cases in Washington are AFM, state health officials said.

“At this point there isn’t evidence that would point to a single source of illness among these cases,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the Department of Health. “We’re working closely with medical providers and public-health agencies. We’ll continue to investigate and share information when we have it.”
This condition is not new, according to the CDC, but the agency began seeing an increase in cases four years ago, almost all involving young children.

In 2016, there was a cluster of nine cases of AFM in Washington and there were three in 2017, according to the health department. This year, there was one case of AFM before the current batch of five affected children.

Nationwide, a total of 38 people in 16 states were found by the CDC to have confirmed cases of AFM between January and September this year.

While the Department of Health said there are no specific recommendations for avoiding AFM, people can take steps to reduce their risks from some known causes with frequent and thorough hand-washing, avoiding close contact with sick people, and cleaning surfaces with a disinfectant, especially those that a sick person has touched. Staying up to date on recommended immunizations is also important to avoiding vaccine-preventable illnesses, the health department said.