The CDC recently issued an alert to healthcare providers about enterovirus D68, which has turned up in children who were hospitalized with severe respiratory illnesses. This virus can also cause a form of paralysis known as acute flaccid myelitis. Most illnesses with this virus do not cause the paralysis, but it’s good for providers to have this on their radar. So what does that mean for you as a parent?
What is enterovirus D68?
This virus is an enterovirus, in the same family as polio. (In fact, there are a whole group of these “non-polio enteroviruses.”) Enteroviruses spend part of their time in the intestine, hence the name, but they can also cause respiratory symptoms like runny nose, sneezing, and coughs. Some of the recent cases of EV-D68 have involved severe respiratory symptoms, especially in children with a history of asthma or wheezing.
EV-D68 is one of the viruses that has been linked to acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which was described as a polio-like paralysis during its first big wave in 2014. There have since been surges in the late summer and early fall of 2016, 2018, and 2020, and it seems to be continuing the pattern this year.
What is acute flaccid myelitis?
Myelitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord that can cause weakness and paralysis. “Acute” means it comes on suddenly, and “flaccid” means that the affected body part may appear floppy. (That’s to distinguish it from other forms of paralysis in which the muscle can cramp or twitch.)
Symptoms of AFM can include weakness in an arm or leg, but other body parts can be affected, including drooping eyelids, slurred speech, or difficulty swallowing. The CDC calls AFM “rare but serious.” If your child has any of these symptoms, make sure to seek medical care.
What should parents know?
It’s important to remember that this virus is not super common, and AFM is even rarer. In short: don’t panic.
Fortunately, the ways to protect yourself and your child from this virus are the same things you should already be doing to reduce your risk of getting colds, flu, COVID, stomach bugs, and other common illnesses. The CDC has an informational poster for parents, which advises the following:
- Avoid close contact with sick people
- Cover your coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands often with soap and water
- Clean and disinfect surfaces
- Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
- Stay home when you’re sick
There is no vaccine for EV-D68, but the CDC still advises staying up-to-date on vaccines to protect yourself from other illnesses that can cause similar symptoms, including polio and the flu.
If your child has asthma, the CDC recommends making sure they have an updated asthma action plan that specifies what medications and precautions to take depending on how much their asthma is bothering them. And, as always, seek immediate medical care if they have trouble breathing.