University researchers respond to spike of polio-like illness cases in Minnesota

The state has seen abnormal levels of Acute Flaccid Myelitis, which causes paralysis and weakness.

University pediatrics professor Dr. Mark Schleiss works in his lab on Monday, Oct. 29 McGuire Translational Research Facility in Minneapolis. Schleiss is a leading expert on acute flaccid myelitis, a rare disease affecting seven children in Minnesota this year.

Jerusa Nyakundi

University pediatrics professor Dr. Mark Schleiss works in his lab on Monday, Oct. 29 McGuire Translational Research Facility in Minneapolis. Schleiss is a leading expert on acute flaccid myelitis, a rare disease affecting seven children in Minnesota this year.

Lew Blank

An illness with polio-like symptoms has seen unusually high numbers in Minnesota this fall, and University of Minnesota researchers are working together with the state government to find a treatment.

Seven children have become sick with acute flaccid myelitis in Minnesota this year, surpassing the state’s average of one case per year. Symptoms include weakness, paralysis and slurred speech.

Although the condition has no known treatment and is caused by more than 100 different infectants, University experts are working closely with the Minnesota Department of Health to investigate and treat the outbreak.

This collaborative effort involves gathering spinal fluid samples from AFM patients and tracking the geography and characteristics of individual cases to better understand the outbreak.

Due to the lack of known treatments for AFM, there is a small chance that this disease could transform into an epidemic, said Mark Schleiss, a pediatrics professor at the University who has treated children with the illness.

“Any time people lose control or are unable to use their body the way they would like, it’s very scary … especially for kids,” said Cynthia Kenyon, who helps supervise AFM research at MDH.

What’s even more dangerous than AFM’s symptoms is the possibility of a major outbreak and the illness spreading to affect more children, said Peter Karachunski, a neurologist at the University.

“When you think about Ebola, for example … it’s not [just] dangerous because of the symptoms it can produce, but it spreads very easily and those viruses [have a] high probability to infect a person,” he said.

AFM has a pattern of appearing every two years in the fall, largely due to the prevalence of viruses toward the end of the year, Kenyon said.

The disease is largely caused by enteroviruses, a group of more than 100 types of viruses including polio, Schleiss said. Since most children are already vaccinated for polio, enteroviruses are likely AFM’s main culprit, most of which do not have vaccines.

Although viruses in this family are different, they’re similar genetically. “These viruses are related to each other in the same way that a Gravenstein apple is similar to a [Golden] Delicious apple,” he said.

There is currently no cure for AFM. However, it can be addressed by making sure that children wash their hands and are vaccinated for polio to stop the spread of infection, Schleiss said.

Additionally, it’s important for medical professionals to report AFM cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and work on developing vaccinations for enteroviruses, said Hyoung Choi, a neurology professor at the University who has treated children with AFM this year.

The portrayal of AFM as a “mystery illness” by some media outlets is inaccurate, Schleiss said. It’s common to not figure out causes of illnesses, like AFM or pneumonia.

“Just because you can’t determine the cause of the pneumonia, does that mean that it’s a … ‘mystery illness?’” he said. “No … it’s the most common thing in the world. It’s just sometimes you can’t figure out the cause, and it’s the same thing with AFM.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly defined AFM. AFM is an illness, not a virus.