Effort to eliminate polio gets coordinated worldwide focus

A physical therapist assists children with polio holding a rail while they exercise their lower limbs. In the early 1950s, there were more than 20,000 cases of polio each year. After the polio vaccination was introduced in 1955, that figure dropped to about 3,000 per year by 1960, according to the Centers of Disease Control. (Centers of Disease Control)

As the fall cold and flu season begins, public health officials across the nation are asking the medical community to be on alert for a disease that looks a lot like polio.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that it has verified reports of 120 children in 24 states who developed acute flaccid myelitis between August 2014 and July 2015.

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“There were no cases reported in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Department of Health spokeswoman Amy Worden said in an email Friday. The statewide health advisory the department issued this week was for informational purposes, she said.

The key symptom of acute flaccid myelitis is sudden weakness in one or more arms or legs, according to the CDC, often preceded by a fever or respiratory illness. The median age of those affected is 7, with most being hospitalized and some being put on breathing machines.

No deaths were reported, the CDC said, but only about a third of the children have shown improvement since being affected, and only two have recovered fully.

The cause of the disease has not been determined, but the Pennsylvania alert said findings so far strongly suggest an infectious process “involving the spinal cord that produces a clinical illness similar to that caused by poliovirus.”

Cases started appearing last year right about the same time as some states saw an outbreak of a viral infection identified as Enterovirus 68, but the CDC said it has not established a clear link between the two.

The CDC advised parents to contact a health care provider immediately if a child exhibits sudden weakness in the arms or legs, and to follow standard prevention measures.

“Being up to date on all recommended vaccinations is the best way to protect yourself and your family from a number of diseases that can cause severe illness and death, including polio, measles, whooping cough, and acute respiratory illnesses such as influenza,” it said. “You can help protect yourselves from infections in general by washing your hands often with soap and water, avoiding close contact with sick people, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.”

It also advised protecting against mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile virus, by using mosquito repellent and staying indoors at dusk and dawn.