State health officials are trying to determine why eight children from four Washington counties, including one from Pierce, have come down with what might be a neurological illness that causes sudden weakness in the extremities.
All of the children, who range in age from 3 to 14, were treated at Seattle Children’s Hospital over the last six weeks, the state Department of Health reported Friday.
Five of the children have been released. Three remained hospitalized.
In addition to the Pierce County patient, three kids from King County, two from Franklin County and two from Whatcom County exhibited symptoms commonly seen in someone infected with a condition called acute flaccid myelitis, also known as AFM, the Health Department said.
Health officials, citing privacy laws, declined to release more information about the patients.
“At this point, there isn’t evidence that would point to a single source of illness among these cases,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state infectious disease epidemiologist. “However, this investigation is just getting underway, and we’re looking at all possibilities as we try to understand what might have contributed to these illnesses.”
AFM is one possibility, health officials said.
It is a rare condition that generally affects the spinal cord. Symptoms include weakness in one or both arms or legs, loss of muscle tone and decreased or absent reflexes.
All the kids treated at Seattle Children’s Hospital had loss of strength or movement in one or both arms or legs, health officials said.
The exact cause of the condition is not known, but “many viruses and germs are linked to AFM, including common germs that can cause colds and sore throats and respiratory infections,” the health department reported.
Public Health Seattle & King County, the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating, and Seattle Children’s Hospital has instituted protocols to isolate patients with AFM symptoms.
There were no cases of AFM reported in Washington last year. In 2014, there were two, the health department reported. There have been 50 cases of AFM reported across the United States so far this year.
“Even with the increase in cases in 2016, AFM remains a very rare disease,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the Department of Health. “Less than one in a million people will ever develop it.”
It is unclear if the condition is contagious.
“AFM is a syndrome, which is basically a group of symptoms caused by many different things,” according to a fact sheet prepared by the Department of Health. “Many of the germs that cause AFM are contagious, such as enteroviruses, which typically cause milder illnesses in children, such as respiratory infections.”
There is no specific treatment for the condition. A neurologist might recommend ways to provide support or treat symptoms, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Department of Health.
The weakness and loss of strength can be lasting, although there are reports of people regaining full movement, according to the fact sheet.
“The CDC did a survey of patients from cases in a 2014 investigation and got 56 responses,” the fact sheet states. “A small number had a complete recovery of limb function after about four months, but some had no improvement.”
Health experts recommend hand washing, avoiding close contact with sick people and cleaning surfaces with disinfectant as preventative measures.