'Polio-like' illness cases flaring up: Should you be concerned?

A mysterious neurological condition called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) has made headlines in recent weeks, with officials looking into several suspected cases in Minnesota, Colorado and here in Chicago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there have been a confirmed 38 cases across 16 states in 2018 so far.

Read on for a look at the illness and what you should know about it.

What is acute flaccid myelitis?

AFM impacts “the area of spinal cord called gray matter, which causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

Most AFM sufferers notice sudden muscle weakness in their limbs and loss of reflexes. They may also experience drooping eyelids, facial droop and slurred speech, among other symptoms.

“In very rare cases, it is possible that the process in the body that triggers AFM may also trigger other serious neurologic complications that could lead to death,” according to the CDC.

What can cause the illness?

There are several ways people can contract AFM, including exposure to toxins in the air, genetic factors or through viruses such as poliovirus, non-polio enteroviruses, adenoviruses, West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis virus and Saint Louis encephalitis virus, according to the agency.

However, it can be hard to detect how patients actually get AFM.

“Oftentimes, despite extensive lab tests, the cause of a patient’s AFM is not identified,” the CDC says.

How many cases have there been?

The CDC says it got information on 362 cases of the illness in the U.S. from August 2014 through August 2018.

This year alone – from January through September – there have been 38 confirmed cases in 16 different states, according to the agency.

“Even with an increase in cases since 2014, AFM remains a very rare condition. Less than one in a million people in the United States get AFM each year,” the CDC says.

Minnesota has noticed a spike in suspected AFM cases in recent weeks.

Health officials are “investigating six cases of suspected AFM” in the state as of Tuesday, Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz told Fox News. All of those patients were under the age of 10 and were hospitalized around the middle of September, according to an Oct. 5 news release.

There were two other suspected cases of AFM in the state earlier this year, according to Schultz.

Shannon Barbare, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told Fox News Tuesday there have been 14 confirmed cases of AFM in the state so far this year – though it’s unclear if all of those cases were included in the CDC’s latest report.

“Of the AFM cases, 11 tested positive for enterovirus A71, one tested positive for enterovirus D68, and two tested negative for enteroviruses,” the department said in an online statement Tuesday. Both enterovirus A71 and enterovirus D68 are types of non-polio enterovirus.

“While all the patients were hospitalized, nearly all have fully recovered,” the department stressed. “There have been no deaths.”

Should you be concerned?

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told Fox News most of 2018's confirmed Colorado cases happened in mid- to late August and September. The majority were in the Denver metropolitan area, she added.

Herlihy called both enterovirus A71 and enterovirus D68 “rarer strains” of enterovirus.

Enterovirus outbreaks typically happen in the summer and early fall - so "this is the time of year that we expect to be seeing" enterovirus cases, she said.

Herlihy noted it’s “quite rare” to suffer neurological complications like AFM, encephalitis and meningitis from enteroviruses.

Most people will instead experience things like a cold, a rash, diarrhea or hand, foot and mouth disease, she explained.