Tenn. child diagnosed with mysterious illness; 22 states affected

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Parents and caregivers across the country are growing concerned following recent reports of a mysterious, polio-like illness. A Tennessee mother said her child was the latest diagnosis.

Serena Hill told WVLT News that doctors diagnosed her 6-year-old son Spencer with the sickness, "You have a healthy 6-year-old boy just getting over a cold, to all of a sudden he can't use his hands and cant walk. It's just mind blowing."

The Hill family is from Chattanooga. Spencer was moved to an Atlanta area hospital for care.

Officials with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital told WVLT News that Hill was receiving treatment in an area of the hospital where patients diagnosed with AFM would be cared for.

Doctors expected him to be discharged on Friday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been 62 confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis, also known as AFM. Ninety percent of those affected have been children.

"It's rare, but certainly when you hear about it, it's very scary for parents," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula told CBS This Morning.

The disease affects the nervous system, specifically the area of the spinal cord called gray matter. It causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to weaken and can even cause paralysis.

AFM is extremely rare, according to CBS, and the CDC estimates that less than one in a million people in the U.S. will get it every year.

"It's not something to really panic about, it's exceedingly rare, but it is something they want physicians and hospitals to be aware of so that if they do see cases, they get reported and hopefully the testing can find out what's causing it," said Mark Rasnake, who is an infectious disease physician.

Officials began tracking the disease in 2014 when they received reports of 120 cases nationwide. Outbreaks appear to follow an every-other-year pattern with another sharp rise in 2016, primarily in late summer and early fall. The pattern appears to be repeating this year. Since 2014, 386 cases have been reported.

What's behind the rise in reports? Health officials aren't sure, and they have given no concrete information as to why the illness seems to peak in the late summer and fall.

"This is truly a mysterious disease," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said. "We don't actually know what is causing this increase. For some of the previous cases we've identified one pathogen or another, but we have no unifying diagnosis."

While officials aren't clear of the exact cause, they say it can occur as a result of a variety of viral illnesses including the polio virus, enteroviruses, West Nile virus and adenoviruses. However, none of the U.S. patients tested positive for polio, and, according to Dr. Messonnier, none of this year's cases have been linked to West Nile virus.

With no answers as to the cause, it's important for parents and caregivers to know the symptoms so they can get their child immediate care.

"Many times it can start with what looks like a respiratory illness, a little bit of a fever, said CBS medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula. "The hallmark is sudden onset of weakness in the arms or the legs. Children can also have trouble swallowing, trouble with their speech, facial droop and trouble with their eye muscles."

The disease can also affect the diaphragm, the muscle that helps us breathe.

"That's when children can really deteriorate and end up on a ventilator," Narula said.

Dr. Messonnier said, "We want to encourage parents to seek medical care right away if you or your child develops symptoms of AFM, such as sudden weakness and loss of muscle tone in your arms or legs."

Diagnosis of AFM comes from symptoms and an MRI, CBS reported.

Unfortunately, there's no specific treatment for AFM. Neurologists may suggest treatments on a case-by-case basis. Doctors can recommend physical or occupational therapy to help with arm or leg weakness.

"Early intervention is definitely always helpful. Unfortunately, there are no real treatments that have been proven to work, but early rehabilitation has been shown to help."

Some patients recover completely, while others continue to struggle with muscle weakness.

What can you do to prevent AFM? The CDC says there are preventative measures people can take to reduce the risk of infections that could cause AFM.

"Getting vaccinated, taking precaution against mosquitoes, washing hands--all of these things are recommended by the CDC," Narula said.

Vaccines and hand-washing help protect against the spread of viral illnesses, while insect repellent helps ward off the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile.