Study points to virus as culprit in kids’ paralyzing illness

Scientists have found the strongest evidence yet that a virus is to blame for a mysterious illness that can start like the sniffles but quickly paralyze children.

Posted: Oct 21, 2019 2:01 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have found the strongest evidence yet that a virus is to blame for a mysterious illness that can start like the sniffles but quickly paralyze children.

The poliolike syndrome, called acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, is very rare. Since the first reports from California in 2012, the U.S. has experienced an increasingly bigger outbreak every other year, from late summer into fall.

Doctors have a chief suspect but proof that it’s the culprit germ has been frustratingly elusive.

So researchers tried a new trick: They checked patients’ spinal fluid for signs the immune system had fought an invading virus. Sure enough, kids who got sick harbored antibodies that target enteroviruses, just the viral family specialists believe is to blame.

“This is circumstantial evidence that this is what’s going on, but it’s a powerful piece of circumstantial evidence,” said Dr. Michael Wilson of the University of California, San Francisco, who helped lead the research. His team reported the findings Monday in Nature Medicine.

Nailing down a suspect is key to better diagnosis and eventually finding a way to prevent or treat the illness, said study co-author Dr. Riley Bove, a neurologist at the university whose own son developed AFM at age 4.

“If you don’t have a cause, you can’t have a vaccine,” Bove noted. Wilson developed “a good enough microscope, in a sense, to find things they suspected were there.”

Some 590 cases of the ailment have been confirmed in the U.S. since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began counting in 2014. Cases spiked that year and in 2016 and last year, with just a few in the intervening years. So far, there have been 22 this year.

Bove’s son, Luca Waugh, illustrates the pattern: His whole family caught a cold in the summer of 2014 — and a few days later, Luca woke up with weakness in his neck that traveled down his shoulder. Despite fast hospitalization, within days he had body-wide paralysis and trouble breathing. He recovered gradually, and today still has some paralysis in his neck, shoulder and arm.

Either a germ or the body’s reaction to a germ was damaging nerves in the spinal cords of patients like Luca. The CDC noted that AFM spikes coincided with seasons when certain strains of enteroviruses — named EV-D68 and EV-A71 — were causing widespread respiratory illnesses. The problem: Doctors seldom found those viruses in the patients’ spinal fluid, leaving doubt about the link.

Antibodies programmed to track specific germs only wind up in spinal fluid if they fought infection there — what Wilson’s team set out to find.

The researchers customized a Harvard-developed tool to search for evidence of hundreds of viruses simultaneously — including herpes, measles, chickenpox, Zika and a whole list of enteroviruses. Add some spinal fluid, and any antibodies present would stick to their target, able to be identified.

In tests of spinal fluid from 42 AFM patients and 58 children with unrelated neurologic illnesses, only enterovirus-targeting antibodies emerged as the potential culprit. Nearly three-fourths of patients harbored them, compared to less than 10% of other children. Further work is underway to narrow down the specific strains.

“Before we develop antivirals or potential vaccines, you really want to prove the viruses are causing disease,” said Dr. John V. Williams, infectious disease chief at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved with the new study. “It’s pretty compelling” evidence.

Mysteries remain. Enteroviruses are hugely common, and doctors don’t know why only a tiny fraction of those infected develop the ailment, Williams said.

And as 2020 approaches, specialists are girding for another possible spike next summer. “There’s a lot of dread,” Bove said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Terre Haute
Few Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 69°
Robinson
Scattered Clouds
66° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 66°
Indianapolis
Scattered Clouds
74° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 74°
Rockville
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 66°
Casey
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 71°
Brazil
Few Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 69°
Marshall
Few Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 69°
Hot Holiday Weekend
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 145750

Reported Deaths: 7005
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook917744618
Lake9864421
DuPage9192474
Kane7796274
Will6839320
Winnebago306796
McHenry208897
St. Clair1965137
Kankakee130265
Rock Island99629
Madison99169
Kendall98121
Champaign93012
Boone60221
DeKalb56719
Peoria54628
Sangamon44032
Jackson33519
Randolph2877
Stephenson2755
Ogle2684
McLean26713
Clinton24017
Macon23222
LaSalle22417
Union19319
Whiteside19215
Coles17317
Grundy1695
Iroquois1605
Tazewell1468
Warren1430
Knox1360
Cass1346
Morgan1303
Monroe12913
Williamson1224
Adams1061
Jefferson10617
McDonough10215
Lee982
Henry931
Vermilion772
Pulaski760
Marion680
Perry561
Douglas540
Macoupin543
Livingston502
Jasper477
Jo Daviess461
Montgomery461
Unassigned460
Christian454
Ford371
Jersey351
Woodford342
Bureau292
Franklin270
Menard240
Fayette233
Alexander220
Carroll222
Mason220
Wabash220
Mercer210
Piatt210
Washington210
Johnson200
Hancock191
Moultrie190
Shelby191
Crawford180
Logan160
Clark150
Fulton150
Massac150
Wayne141
Bond131
Effingham131
Schuyler130
Cumberland120
Brown100
Edgar100
De Witt90
Greene90
Marshall90
Saline90
Henderson80
Lawrence70
White60
Hamilton50
Richland40
Stark40
Pike30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Pope10
Putnam10
Scott10
Out of IL00

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 46915

Reported Deaths: 2681
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11499683
Lake5053242
Elkhart316443
Allen2717128
St. Joseph186366
Cass16369
Hamilton1518100
Hendricks1386100
Johnson1254118
Porter71237
Tippecanoe6778
Madison64864
Clark63844
Bartholomew58244
Howard56057
LaPorte55326
Kosciusko5124
Vanderburgh4806
Jackson4653
LaGrange4657
Noble45728
Hancock43735
Boone43443
Delaware42949
Marshall4273
Shelby42025
Floyd37144
Morgan32531
Montgomery29320
Grant29026
Clinton2852
Monroe26628
Dubois2646
White26010
Decatur24832
Henry24315
Lawrence23624
Vigo2288
Dearborn22723
Harrison21022
Warrick21029
Greene18432
Miami1812
Jennings17111
Putnam1688
Scott1607
DeKalb1594
Daviess14116
Orange13523
Wayne1346
Perry1279
Steuben1262
Franklin1248
Jasper1142
Ripley1147
Carroll1102
Wabash1102
Fayette987
Newton9710
Whitley884
Starke853
Randolph784
Huntington712
Wells711
Jefferson701
Fulton681
Jay680
Washington661
Knox630
Pulaski621
Clay604
Gibson592
Rush563
Adams481
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Blackford372
Posey360
Spencer351
Fountain302
Tipton301
Crawford290
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Warren141
Union130
Vermillion130
Pike90
Unassigned0193