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Researchers have a leading suspect in mind for what may have caused the paralysis of more than 100 children in the United States since August 2014—but definitive evidence eludes them.
In a study published Jan. 28 in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers described evidence linking the paralysis to enterovirus D68 (EV-D68). EV-D68 had already been a suspect because in a previous study, the virus was found in nasal swabs from 8 out of 41 paralysis patients tested, according to Nature. The new study focused on a group of children who experienced this paralysis in Denver, Col. In this smaller group, the link appeared strong. Nature reported: “Nasal swabs from 8 of the 11 children affected contained enteroviruses, with 5 of them containing EV-D68. … However, the strongest proof that the virus underlies the paralysis would be if it were found in affected people’s cerebrospinal fluid.”
It has not, however, been found in the cerebrospinal fluid.
Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) was first discovered in 1962 in California. It is linked to the common cold, with symptoms such as runny nose, coughing, fever, and muscle ache. It primarily affects the respiratory system. But only time will tell if it could also cause paralysis. Few of the children studied have recovered from the paralysis, though it is possible.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explain: “Small numbers of EV-D68 have been reported regularly to CDC since 1987. However, during 2014 the number of people reported with confirmed EV-D68 infection was much greater than that reported in previous years. We can’t predict whether EV-D68 will be a common type of enterovirus detected in future seasons.”
There is no specific treatment for EV-D68 infections and no vaccine. Many hospitals and doctors’ offices can test for enteroviruses, but only some are able to test for the specific enterovirus EV-D68.
More than 1,000 cases of EV-D68 were reported in the United States as of Oct. 2014. People are more likely to become infected in the summer and fall, and children or others with weaker immune systems are most susceptible. Cases in which the virus was accompanied by paralysis or muscle weakness were also found in Canada, but have not been reported in other countries.
The Lancet reported that hospitals and Canada and the United States have responded by reporting cases of neurological symptoms in children that appeared after respiratory illness. The Lancet continued: “These cases are being treated with physical therapy but the long-term prognosis is uncertain because most children have not shown relevant improvements so far.”
The virus can be spread through contact with respiratory secretions—when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or touches a surface that is then touched by others. The preventative measures CDC recommends include frequent hand-washing; avoiding close contact, such as hugging, with ill people; avoiding touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.
*Image of a boy in a wheelchair via Shutterstock