The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed a Santa Barbara teenager has been diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, a paralyzing illness similar to polio, that targets the spinal chord.
The neurologic disorder has impacted 102 children in 34 states between August and December of this year; The local case is the 101st.
“At this point we don’t have a specific virus or a specific exposure that we can blame on these cases,” said Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease expert with Santa Barbara County Public Health.
Health officials say of all the documented cases, respiratory issues were often involved, but not always, making the diagnosis difficult. The main symptom is sudden and severe weakness, particularly in the arms and legs.
In some cases, the patient regains mobility.
“It depends on the level of the spinal chord that’s involved,” said Fitzgibbons. “But essentially, this can be thought of as an injury or an insult to the spinal cord itself.”
What health officials do know is that a range of viruses has been implicated including the adnovirus, or the common cold, and the enterovirus linked to polio.
Experts are also looking to see if genetics and a person’s predisposition may contribute to the severity of the illness.
“The vast majority of people who get these viruses are not going to have this very severe complication,” Fitzgibbons told NewsChannel 3.
Still, the CDC is working hard to pinpoint the exact cause and optimal treatment. In September, the CDC ordered health care workers who diagnose patients with acute flaccid myelitis to report each case.
“I would encourage people not to panic and support people who know this patient and do what we can to maintain good, general health,” said Fitzgibbons.
Health officials say good handwashing is the best protection against common viruses.