Fort Worth, Texas,
11:09 AM

What Is This Mysterious Polio-Like Illness?

Doctors look at symptoms and protection against Acute Flaccid Myelitis

The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating six children who have been diagnosed with a rare illness that resembles polio, called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM)

Cook Children's medical staff saw its own cluster of patients in 2016 and has seen sporadic cases since then, as have other hospitals across the nation.

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) presents similar to polio in that it causes an abrupt onset of limb weakness an decreased muscle tone, which can have associated problems with urination and, in the worst cases, cause respiratory failure if the muscles involved in the breathing become weak.

“This is a very rare illness and we’re still not sure what causes AFM,” said Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s. “It is mostly like caused by a virus or a genetic disorder. At this point, we must treat each child on a case-by-case basis, but the earlier a diagnosis is made, the quicker a plan of action can take place.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says most patients will have a sudden onset of limb weakness and loss of muscle tone and reflexes. Some patients will also experience:

  • Facial droop/weakness
  • Difficulty moving the eyes
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Difficulty with swallowing or slurred speech

If you notice any of these symptoms, please notify your doctor immediately. Through thorough testing of the nervous system, doctors will be able to diagnose AFM.

The CDC recommends the following as means of prevention:

  • Up to date on all recommended vaccinations, including the poliovirus.
  • Protect yourself from mosquito-borne viruses such as West Nile by using mosquito repellent and staying indoors at dusk and dawn.
  • Remove standing or stagnant water from properties to minimize the number of mosquitoes in your area.
  • Wash hands with soap and water.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Clean surfaces with a disinfectant, especially those that a sick person has touched.


Get to know Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D.

Dr. Whitworth is the medical director of Infectious Disease at Cook Children's. 

She started in pediatrics for her first rotation of her junior year of medical school. She did it first to get it out of the way because "I knew I didn't want to be a pediatrician. But I absolutely loved it and the rest is history."

Children are what make this job so very special to me, Dr. Whitworth said. "They smile and laugh through almost everything."

Away from work she enjoys spending time with her family is also very involved in our church. 

Cook Children's Infectious Disease team is dedicated to providing excellent, patient-centered care, as well as access to the most up-to-date therapies and leading-edge clinical research.

The team offers care for children and teens with diseases caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses. Our team provides a broad range of services including diagnosis, inpatient and outpatient consultations, immune deficiency evaluations and treatment of recurring infections.

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