Health Officials Investigating Paralysis in Kids With Enterovirus D68

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Sept. 29, 2014 -- Some children hospitalized with breathing problems caused by enterovirus D68 in Colorado and Kansas City have also developed unexplained paralysis in their arms and legs, officials say.

Doctors have been watching for paralysis in enterovirus patients affected by the current outbreak, which the CDC says has spread to at least 40 states.

That's because D68 is related to the virus that causes polio, which crippled thousands of children across the United States before a successful vaccine was created in the 1950s. And in 2012, researchers at Stanford University reported 25 childhood cases of paralysis of an unknown cause that shared features of polio, and in some cases also started as a respiratory illness.

When enteroviruses move beyond the gut or airways, they can attack nerve cells in the spine that control movement.

"The polio virus is a professional at doing this. All the other enteroviruses are amateurs. They do it very, very, very rarely," says William Schaffner, MD. He's an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. "But D68 is a new one. It's a bit of a different enterovirus. The question is: Could it be doing this?"

He cautions that other germs, including West Nile virus, can also cause paralysis, and it could simply be a case of double infection in this cluster of children.

"This could be just coincidental, so we can't leap to the conclusion that enterovirus D68 is the cause of this paralysis," he says. "It's right at the top of our list of suspects, but we haven't nailed it yet."

Investigation Details

Early in the outbreak, pediatricians said they hadn't seen any signs that infected children were having trouble moving their limbs.

But that changed last week when Children's Hospital Colorado reported they had a cluster of nine patients with paralysis and signs of nerve damage on MRIs.

Four of the nine affected children have had enterovirus D68 isolated from their airways. Tests are pending for two others. And now the CDC is also checking samples of the children's spinal fluid for the virus.

The CDC sent out an alert to doctors across the country on Friday telling them to report similar cases. On Monday, a spokesperson for the agency declined to say how many patients with paralysis officials are aware of across the country or when the CDC might have test results.

Mary Anne Jackson, MD, is chief of the pediatric infectious diseases section at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, one of the first hospitals to flag the surge in enterovirus D68 infections. She says they also had cases under investigation with symptoms similar to those seen in the Colorado patients.

Schaffner says that in many children, symptoms of paralysis will ease over time as inflammation and swelling of the tissues improves.

"But some of these illnesses can have a permanent residual paralysis, just like the old-timey polio did, because if those cells have been destroyed, there can be some residual paralysis," he says.

There is no vaccine to prevent enterovirus D68. There are no effective treatments for the infection, either.

Hospitals rely on medications to open airways and supplemental oxygen to help kids get through the worst of the breathing problems.

So far, no deaths linked to enterovirus D68 have been confirmed, but the New Jersey Department of Health said Monday the CDC was testing samples taken from a 4-year-old with suspicious symptoms who died at home.

Right now, the best ways to protect kids from enteroviruses are to:

  • Practice good hand-washing habits.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces like toys and doorknobs.

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SOURCES: William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University, School of Medicine, Nashville, TN.Mary Anne Jackson, MD, Chief, pediatric infectious diseases section, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, MO.Donna Leusner, Director of Communications, New Jersey Department of Health, Trenton, N.J.CDC Health Advisory, CDC Health Alert Network, Sept. 26, 2014.

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