We don’t know. That’s the answer from the federal government’s top disease expert on what’s causing the polio-like illness that’s leading to paralysis in children around the U.S.
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It's called acute flaccid myelitis, also known as AFM, and it's a virus that starts as a cold but then attacks the nervous system, causing different forms of paralysis.
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Anthony Fauci, admitted Wednesday that health experts do not know the specific cause of the illness.
“It's a very frustrating situation. We do not know definitively what it is, although there is a suspicion, a strong suspicion that it is associated with a particular type of virus that we recognize,” Fauci said.
From AIDS to Ebola, Fauci and the team he heads at NIAID have been charged with fighting the most dangerous diseases.
However, in the case of AFM, experts just aren't sure of the cause. It could be tied to a specific strain of an enterovirus, common viruses that typically cause only minor illnesses in healthy children.
“What we do is we try and figure out how you can counter it, developing drugs against it, developing vaccines, but you’ve got to know what you have before you can do that,” Fauci said.
Disease detectives with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working on that.
Fauci says the National Institutes of Health are now running animal tests and growing neural tissue to try to confirm the source of the paralysis.
Officials with the CDC announced this week that they are aware of 155 cases of AFM reported so far this year.
One of those cases includes a toddler from Jacksonville, Florida. Amira Faircloth was an energetic child who suddenly couldn’t walk.
Her mother, Reba Faircloth, said the girl’s condition is causing serious frustration and helplessness.
“It's nerve wracking. It's stressful,” Faircloth said.
“She can't understand, she can't get out of bed and do things for herself," she said.
Fauci said the best advice he has right now is to wash hands frequently.
“All things considered, it's a rare occurrence. It’s one in a million,” the NIAID director said about the disease.
Although it’s little consolation for the155 families affected so far, he also said, unlike polio, health officials are not seeing so-called clusters, large numbers of cases tied to specific locations.