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Mysterious Polio-Like Illness Strikes Children in California

Only a small number of cases identified, experts say, with no clear common cause

MONDAY, Feb. 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A rare "polio-like syndrome" has caused paralysis in about 20 children from across California, according to a report released Sunday by physicians in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The children, who are between the ages of 3 and 12, developed acute, flaccid paralysis. These cases suggest there is a possibility of a new infectious polio-like syndrome in California, Keith Van Haren, M.D., author of the case report and a pediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University told HealthDay. The children who have been affected seem to have been permanently paralyzed, he said. The illness is not polio; all the victims had been immunized against polio and tested negative for the presence of the disease, Van Haren explained. And the disease is rare. "It's not an epidemic," he said. "But it is something that is concerning."

Van Haren said some victims suddenly developed weakness of one or more limbs within about 48 hours of becoming sick. Magnetic resonance imaging scans showed worrisome changes in the gray matter of the spinal cord. To help them more effectively fight the disease, the children were given steroids, intravenous immunoglobulin and/or blood plasma exchange -- without improvement, according to the authors of the case report.

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. Carol Glaser, M.D., chief of encephalitis and the special investigations section in the California Department of Public Health emphasized to HealthDay that only a very small number of cases have been identified, with no clear common cause. "Health care providers have been asked to send information about similar cases so that we can determine whether or not there is anything unusual about these cases," she said.

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