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Five children in California were paralyzed by a polio-like enterovirus in a single year, scientists warn. What is going on, and could you be at risk?

Polio is, thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, slowly on its way out. The debilitating and potentially fatal childhood disease is now only endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. The world could soon be completely polio free. The question is, will anything replace the disease?

California scientists say that a polio-like disease paralyzed at least five children in that state in a single year, while up to 20 were found to be infected. A meeting of the American Academy of Neurology discussed the rare emerging disease, and noted that several patients suffered paralysis of all limbs that did not improve with treatment. Is it time to get scared in the US, which is polio-free?

The Disease, Its Symptoms, And Its Scope

A detailed analysis of the polio-like virus in the five cases revealed that enterovirus-68 could be the culprit. Yet doctors say that they don't expect an epidemic and that the virus is still very rare. Though enterovirus-68 is related to polio and shares some of its worst symptoms, all patients who caught it were fully vaccinated against polio. 

"The recovery has been, in the best cases, marginal," Emmanuelle Waubant, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at UCSF, said. "In the worst cases, there has been no recovery at all." 

Dr Wuabant runs a pediatric clinic for multiple sclerosis, and reported that she was worried by a patient who suddenly developed paralysis. Yet, the child was vaccinated against polio and was said to have the "normal immunity" to the disease — so it couldn't be polio itself. Dr Wuabant's coworker mentioned having seen a similar disease, and that is when they decided to look at the California’s Neurologic and Surveillance Testing to examine if the cases they had seen could be part of a larger outbreak.  

At that point, they found out about the other reports. Dr Wuabant notes that similar cases have been spotted in Asia and that the geographical proximity could explain why California has been hit while other parts of the United States remain unaffected.

Two of the children tested positive for enterovirus-68, while the others didn't. Wuabant says further studies are needed to determine whether all these cases are caused by enterovirus-68 or by some other enterovirus. The name HEV-68 is also, meanwhile, being discussed. 

Because the reported cases were spread over a 100-mile diameter, scientists don't believe that we are dealing with a single outbreak. Many more than the reported 20 patients could have been infected, since the disease could be so mild it isn't diagnosed properly. In most cases, the disease is likely to manifest as cold-like symptoms which a patient may never even see a doctor for. Indeed, the same holds true for polio.

'We Don't Think We're About To Experience An Epidemic'

Are we looking at something as dangerous as polio, which paralyzed 20,000 individuals a year in the US alone not that long ago? Probably not, according to Dr Wuabant. She told the BBC that, since there had been no obvious increase in the number of cases, we are not likely to be dealing with an epidemic. "But it's bad news for individuals unlucky enough to develop symptoms which tend to be moderate to severe and don't appear to improve too much despite reasonably aggressive treatment."

Patients that have sudden symptoms of paralysis should always be seen by a doctor immediately, so they can receive the correct diagnosis and the best available treatment. 

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