Philippine Daily Inquirer



WASHINGTON—SCIENTISTS have found the strongest evidence yet that a virus is to blame for a mysterious illness that can start like the sniffles but quickly paralyze children.

The polio-like syndrome, called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, is very rare. Since the first reports from California in 2012, the United States has experience­d an increasing­ly bigger outbreak every other year, from late summer into fall.

Doctors have a chief suspect but proof that it’s the culprit germ has been frustratin­gly elusive.

So researcher­s tried a new trick: They checked patients’ spinal fluid for signs the immune system had fought an invading virus. Sure enough, kids who got sick harbored antibodies that target enteroviru­ses, just the viral family specialist­s believe is to blame.

“This is circumstan­tial evidence that this is what’s going on, but it’s a powerful piece of circumstan­tial evidence,” said Dr. Michael Wilson of the University

of California, San Francisco, who helped lead the research. His team reported the findings on Monday in Nature Medicine.

Nailing down a suspect is key to better diagnosis and eventually finding a way to prevent or treat the illness, said study coauthor Dr. Riley Bove, a neurologis­t at the university whose own son developed AFM at age 4.

Some 590 cases of the ailment have been confirmed in the United States since the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention (CDC) began counting in 2014. Cases spiked that year and in 2016 and last year, with just a few in the intervenin­g years. So far, there have been 22 this year.

Bove’s son, Luca Waugh, illustrate­s the pattern: His whole family caught a cold in the summer of 2014 and a few days later, Luca woke up with weakness in his neck that traveled down his shoulder. Despite fast hospitaliz­ation, within days he had bodywide paralysis and trouble breathing. He recovered gradually, and today still has some paralysis in his neck, shoulder and arm.

Either a germ or the body’s reaction to a germ was damaging nerves in the spinal cords of patients like Luca. The CDC noted that AFM spikes coincided with seasons when certain strains of enteroviru­ses named EV-D68 and EV-A71 were causing widespread respirator­y illnesses. The problem: Doctors seldom found those viruses in the patients’ spinal fluid, leaving doubt about the link.

Antibodies programmed to track specific germs only wind up in spinal fluid if they fought infection there—what Wilson’s team set out to find.

In tests of spinal fluid from 42 AFM patients and 58 children with unrelated neurologic illnesses, only enteroviru­s-targeting antibodies emerged as the potential culprit. Nearly threefourt­hs of patients harbored them, compared to less than 10 percent of other children. Further work is underway to narrow down the specific strains.

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