A virus that has the potential to cause polio-like paralysis in children has reared its ugly head in the US once again. Its name is enterovirus D68, aka EV-D68, and US health authorities are asking doctors to keep an eye out for the infection over the coming fall.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory this week warning about an increase in the number of children hospitalized with rhinovirus (RV) and/or enterovirus (EV) infections last month.
RV and EV are a wide group of viruses, some of which cause mild illnesses like the common cold. However, most worryingly, some of the kids have tested positive for EV-D68.
The CDC didn’t say how many children have an EV-D68 infection but explained they have seen cases in “several regions” of the US.
The most common symptoms among hospitalized children with EV-D68 include cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing. In rare instances though, the virus can cause a polio-like disorder called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a serious spinal cord condition that causes people to experience weakness in their limbs and decreased reflexes.
It’s only recently that scientists uncovered that EV-D68 can cause AFM. It became apparent when children were falling sick with an illness that was indistinguishable from polio but not testing positive for the virus that causes it, another member of the enterovirus family.
There have been 693 confirmed cases of AFM since the CDC began tracking the condition in 2014. As of September 14, 2022, there have been 14 confirmed AFM cases in 2022, according to the CDC.
The CDC says it hasn’t yet seen an increase in reports of AFM but has said “increased vigilance for AFM in the coming weeks will be essential” since the number of EV-D68 cases appears to be on the up.
Since it is considered a respiratory infection, children with asthma may be at a higher risk of falling seriously ill than others. Previous outbreaks have found that the average age of children hospitalized with the infection is three years old.
Unfortunately, there are currently no available vaccines or specific treatments for RV or EV, including EV-D68.
Looking at previous years, EV-D68 is thought to peak in late summer and early fall. Spikes in activity were seen in the fall of 2014, 2016, and 2018. Another spike was predicted for 2020, but the circulation of the virus was stifled thanks to social distancing measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.