Polio-like illness hits 20 California kids

Researchers are seeking the cause of a disease that has struck 20 to 25 children since 2012

Researchers are investigating the cause of a rare polio-like illness in California.
David Silverman/Universal Images Group via/Getty Images

More than a dozen children in California have developed an extremely rare, polio-like syndrome within the past year that within days paralyzed one or more of the children's arms or legs, Stanford University researchers say.

The illness is still being investigated and appears to be very unusual, but Dr. Keith Van Haren at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University warned Monday that any children showing a sudden onset of weakness in their limbs or symptoms of paralysis should be immediately seen by a doctor.

"The disease resembles but is not the same as polio," he said. "But this is serious. Most of the children we've seen so far have not recovered use of their arm or their leg."

Doctors are not sure if it's a virus or something else, he said. Van Haren says he has studied five cases from Monterey up through the San Francisco Bay Area, including two children who were identified with the disease enterovirus-68, (EV-68) which is from the same family as the polio viruses. He said there have been about 20 cases statewide.

"We want to temper the concern because, at the moment, it does not appear to represent a major epidemic but only a very rare phenomenon," he said, noting similar outbreaks in Asia and Australia.

While a mystery illness that causes paralysis in the limbs of children is a terrifying prospect for parents, the doctors involved in the study emphasized repeatedly at a press conference Monday night just how rare the disease is, with 20 cases in California over the past 18 months, reported Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan.

"Dr. Keith Van Haren made clear that in his years of research, he has come across cases of mystery illnesses with polio-like symptoms. It's part of his research," she said. "And what's happening now should not be viewed as anywhere near an outbreak or even a cluster. He simply examined five specific cases of the 20 or so in the state to try to find out more about what is going on. He and his colleagues believe it's most likely a virus — but they have no proof, and the research at the moment is preliminary. The bottom line: Parents should not panic, but they should be aware."

But for some children, like Sofia Jarvis, 4, of Berkeley, rare doesn't mean they are safe. She developed what looked like asthma two years ago, but then her left arm stopped moving and has remained paralyzed ever since.

"You can imagine. We had two boys that are very healthy, and Sofia was healthy until that point," said her mother, Jessica Tomei. "We did not realize what we were in store for. We did not realize her arm would be permanently paralyzed."

Van Haren, who diagnosed Sofia, said polio vaccines do not protect children from the disease but stressed that it is still important for children to receive that vaccine.

Dr. Jane Seward of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said Monday that the research is still underway in California, and there are a number of infectious diseases that can cause childhood paralysis.

So there could be more than one illness at work here, and it's possible some of the affected children had one infection and some had another. Regarding the presence of EV-68 in at least two cases, "it could be an incidental finding," Seward said. Until they get more information, she said, they are not looking around the country for similar cases of EV-68.

University of California at San Francisco neurology professor Emmanuelle Waubant said researchers believe but don't have proof that it's a virus that for most children shows up as a benign cold. She said a few children, because of their biological makeup, are having much more serious symptoms, and she hoped doctors would look for them.

"For a lot of the neurologists who have trained in the last 30 years, it's extremely rare to see polio or polio-like syndrome," Waubant said.

Polio, eradicated in the United States over three decades ago, is an infectious virus that can permanently paralyze or kill victims within hours of infection. A vaccine, developed in the 1950s nearly wiped out the disease worldwide, although it remains endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Wire services and Al Jazeera

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