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Social Distancing Probably Stopped 2020 Outbreak of Paralyzing Disorder in Kids

THURSDAY, March 11, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have prevented an anticipated outbreak of a rare polio-like syndrome in children, researchers report.

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a spinal condition that causes weakness in the limbs, impairs motor function and can lead to lifelong disabilities. It was first reported in the United States in 2012, with outbreaks recurring every two years.

An outbreak was expected in 2020, but appears to have been snuffed out by social distancing measures during the pandemic, according to the authors of a study published March 10 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

There were only 31 cases of AFM in the United States in 2020, compared to 153 cases in 2016 and 238 cases in 2018.

Social distancing curbed a respiratory illness called enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), which is strongly associated with AFM, the researchers explained.

EV-D68 is a virus found in infants and children that typically causes respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, cough or sneezing.

The actual cause of AFM hasn't been pinpointed, but it has been linked to viral infections, and past research has identified a connection to EV-D68, according to the study authors.

EV-D68 outbreaks have occurred every two years and have coincided with the outbreak pattern of AFM, they noted.

The researchers said their finding that social distancing during COVID-19 may have prevented a fresh outbreak of AFM in 2020 suggests that vaccines targeting EV-D68 could reduce future outbreaks of AFM.

"Though currently uncommon, this syndrome has been increasing in frequency with each successive outbreak since 2014, making it critically important to better understand the patterns and drivers behind it," said study author Sang Woo Park, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

"Fortunately, we saw very little EV-D68 circulation in 2020 and few cases of AFM compared to what was expected, but that makes it even more important to be as prepared as possible for what could be coming in 2021 or beyond," Park said in a university news release.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on AFM.

SOURCE: Princeton University, news release, March 10, 2021

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