THE WOODLANDS, Texas – The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Thursday that at least two cases of a polio-like illness were reported in Southeast Texas this year.
About one in a million people will be diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, also known as AFM, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's a rare illness, but health officials have seen a spike in cases since 2014, mostly in children.
One mother wants to share her story to alert other parents about AFM.
Scott said her 7-year-old son, Braden Scott, was diagnosed with AFM when he was 5 years old.
“We’ve been working for the last over two years to help him recover from this. He’s gone from only being able to move one hand, to being able to walk, and has regained a lot of function,” Rachel Scott said. “I joke that I could be a therapist or a pulmonologist. I’ve got a lot of medical knowledge that I didn't have before.”
Rachel Scott said on July 4, 2016, Braden started to show signs of either a cold or mono.
“His main symptom at first was that he couldn't swallow, and we assumed he had a sore throat,” Scott said. “They did antibiotics and steroids, and he just kept getting weaker. Eventually, we realized it was too late, it was paralysis, his swallowing and the rest of his body was becoming paralyzed.”
She said he eventually stopped breathing because his diaphragm was paralyzed and had to be flown to Memorial Hermann Hospital by Life Flight. Scott said they were living in the Beaumont area at the time.
“And it took a couple more days until they realized it was a neurological issue, and then they were able to start the treatments to stop the paralysis from spreading,” she said.
AFM is a virus that affects the nervous system. It causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to weaken, according to the CDC. Many people compare the disease to polio because it can cause problems that are very similar to the poliovirus.
Symptoms of AFM include weakness of the arms or legs, facial droop or weakness, difficulty moving the eyes, drooping eyelids, difficulty with swallowing or slurred speech.
Since his diagnosis, Braden has gone to countless amounts of therapy, and he is progressing every step of the way.
“With AFM, Braden has had to relearn basically how to do everything, from breathing, talking, walking, and as you see, he’s come a really long way,” said Jamie Beckham, an occupational therapist at TIRR Memorial Hermann in The Woodlands.
Braden goes to TIRR Memorial Hermann in The Woodlands five hours a week.
“He’s made a lot of recovery ever since we’ve seen him. We’ve been really working on his hands, upper extremities, a lot of hand with (the) right arm and a lot of shoulder-strengthening with his left,” Beckham said. “Braden had a nerve transfer about a year ago that we’ve been trying to get that activation and so he’s been making a lot of progress since we’ve been seeing him.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time learning about how we can get Braden better,” Scott said.
Braden attends public school and is in second grade, but every day, he spends two hours at home working on therapy.
“Braden has such a strong will to get better,” said Beckham, who said Braden is very smart. “He challenges us as therapists, and we challenge him as a patient. So it’s been a lot of fun, working with him."
Scott, who is also a mother of four other young kids, created a Facebook page so that other parents whose children have AFM could connect.
“It helps families that are affected by AFM find each other and get the support from other parents going through the same thing, and they’re hopefully able to get better outcomes,” Scott said. “Parents who are in the acute phase when their kids are just getting sick, that their parents are able to find the treatments to stop the paralysis quickly.”
She said her goal is to also bring awareness to the rare disease.
“The CDC has not gotten an accurate report of how many cases of AFM there are because it’s not mandatory to report it,” Scott said. “The CDC is not recognizing this as a widespread problem as we believe it is because it’s being underreported and not enough attention has been paid attention to it.”
According to the CDC, other viruses like poliovirus and West Nile may sometimes lead to AFM.
While there is no cure for the virus, neurologists can recommend treatments.
State health officials said AFM is not a disease that is required to be reported, so the number of cases is based on those who have voluntarily reported it.
Most of the eight cases of the illness reported in Texas are in the northern part of the state. However, officials said, there are several other possible cases being investigated, and it takes about a month to go through the CDC evaluation process.