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Children's Health

Mysterious Polio-Like Illness Strikes Kids in California

Only a small number of cases identified, experts say, with no clear common cause
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Van Haren and his team reviewed all five polio-like cases among children whose lab samples had been referred to California's Neurologic and Surveillance Testing Program from August 2012 to July 2013. He has now included the data from about 15 additional cases reported since then, which he'll be presenting at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, held April 26 to May 3 in Philadelphia.

Flaccid paralysis -- unlike measles or pediatric flu deaths, for example -- is not considered a disease or condition that must be reported to county or state health departments or national agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because there is no reporting requirement, the scope of the problem is still hard to assess, explained Dr. Carol Glaser, chief of encephalitis and the special investigations section in the California Department of Public Health. "We do not know whether these cases represent an increase in cases over what usually occurs or even if cases are an ongoing or isolated occurrence," she said.

Glaser also pointed out that the California Department of Public Health has not yet identified a common cause for the cases. "At this stage, CDPH has asked health care providers to report any polio-like cases they might identify and send specimens so that we can better assess the situation," she said.

On a national level, the CDC also cannot know for sure whether there are more cases of this polio-like syndrome than they have heard about, or to what event the illness may be appearing in other states. "It's hard to know if five or 20 cases in the course of a year or two are significant," said Jason McDonald, CDC spokesperson. "Acute flaccid paralysis can be the result of a variety of viral and non-viral causes."

Parents who notice a sudden onset of weakness in their children should see their pediatrician right away, Van Haren advised. Physicians in the state should notify the California Department of Public Health any time they see a child with acute flaccid paralysis that is not due to diseases that affect the nervous system, such as botulism or Guillain-Barre syndrome, he added.

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