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Polio-like mystery illness paralyzing children

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A mysterious polio-like illness has paralyzed limbs and caused breathing problems in up to twenty-five children in California, according to a story in USA Today.

While testing has ruled out polio in these cases, doctors remain uncertain about the cause. Polio itself has virtually disappeared since Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine in 1954, but the current condition has much in common with its predecessor, including a similarly grim prognosis.

Says Keith Van Haren, pediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, “It’s like the old polio…[T]he best-case scenario is complete loss of one limb, the worst is all four limbs, with respiratory insufficiency, as well.”

Doctors saw their first case in Berkeley in 2012, when 2-year old Sofia Jarvis came in with wheezing and difficulty breathing that doctors first took to be asthma.

Dr. Van Haren had to explain to Sofia's mom, Jessica Tomei, that prognosis was poor and that her condition would not improve.

After he diagnosed the condition in Sofia, Dr. Van Haren and his colleagues worried about the possibility of additional cases. Their search of recent medical files turned up two more cases, both in the San Francisco Bay area.

“We don’t have a final case count, but it’s probably in the neighborhood of twenty-five cases, all in California,” said Van Haren.

Van Haren suspects the cause is an enterovirus, which belongs to a family of viruses that includes polio, along with milder disease of the hand, foot and mouth common in infants and children.

Sadly, while we have a vaccine for the polio virus, we have no vaccine for other enteroviruses, Van Haren said. That means doctors can do very little can be done, but to try to spot new cases and report them as cases appear.

To that end, public health officials in California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are looking for new cases nationwide. Thus far, none have been reported.

Also, the California Department of Public Health is asking health care providers to report any polio-like cases they find, and to send specimens if possible, says Carol Glaser, chief of the encephalitis and special investigation section of the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento.

As for Sophia, her left arm is paralyzed and she has weakness in her left leg, along with some slight breathing issues, all of which are unfortunately permanent.

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