Health Canada on watch after six cases in Montreal of rare illness causing paralysis in children
Published Monday, October 22, 2018 7:01PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 24, 2018 8:28AM EDT
There have been six confirmed cases in Montreal of a rare polio-like disease causing paralysis in children, leading Health Canada to watch the situation closely.
Called AFM, or acute flaccid myelitis, the World Health Organization defines the illness as a “sudden onset of paralysis/weakness in any part of the body of a child less than 15 years of age.” It is also known as AFP, or acute flaccid paralysis.
The spike in the disease was first reported last month in the U.S., where the Center for Disease Control reported more than 62 cases of AFM have been confirmed in 22 states in recent weeks. Another 93 cases are under investigation.
More than two dozen Canadian children are also believed to have developed AFM.
“To date in 2018, 25 probable cases and 5 confirmed cases of sudden onset muscle weakness in children have been reported,” Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) spokesperson Anna Maddison told CTV News in a written statement. All of those children are under the age of 15.
“Currently, the surveillance data do not indicate an increase in the number of potential cases in Canada,” Maddison said.
Graphic by Nick Kirmse (CTVNews.ca)
'It started with a headache'
A four-year-old Gatineau girl is among the children currently receiving care for AFM. Genevieve Blais first complained of a headache, said her father, Nicolas Blais. When she developed a fever, she was taken to hospital for antibiotics.
“The next day, Genevieve tried to get up and she was falling all over the house,” Blais recalled. “She could no longer walk.”
The once-active girl is now in hospital, “paralyzed from head to toe,” according to her father. She spends much of the day on a ventilator and improvements have been slight.
“Now she moves her hands a little, but cannot raise them or move her legs,” Blais said. “Her neck falls from side to side and sometimes it falls forward.”
The experience, he added, has been incredibly frightening.
“It is so hard to describe how we feel,” Blais said. “If she is going to walk again, it will be after some time. There is nothing else we can do but hope that she gets better with time.”
Dr. Christos Karatzios from the Montreal Children's Hospital division of infectious diseases is part of the team overseeing Genevieve’s care.
“Unfortunately, right now there is no established treatment,” he said. “The treatment is supportive. Patients, if they can’t breathe, they are supported with ventilator… If they cannot feed themselves, then they may be fed either through the nose or through the mouth with a tube down directly into the stomach… (And) there are patients being treated with high dose steroids or intravenous antibodies.”
Not a new illness
The disease, though extremely rare, is not new in Canada – according to Canada’s public health agency, there are about 60 potential cases of the illness every year.
Still, it can be alarming, because AFM mainly affects the part of the spinal cord and nervous system and children are the ones typically affected by it.
Some symptoms include weakness or paralysis in limbs, drooping of the face or eyelids and slurred speech -- approximately one week after a fever and respiratory illness.
Health Canada said though it doesn’t expect the same numbers in Canada as the U.S., it is closely monitoring the situation.
It is recommending Canadians take the same precautions as during the flu season, including washing hands and wiping down surfaces.
It also recommends visiting a health professional if your child seems weak and has cold-like symptoms.
Dr. Jeremy Friedman, pediatrician-in-chief at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children said it’s important parents remember that this is still “an incredibly rare condition.”
“The health authorities estimate that the risk for children is about one in a million,” he said. “And even if we do have a little bit of a cluster of cases at the moment, the risk is still extremely low in the general population,” he said.
- With a report from CTVNews.ca's Daniel Otis, CTV News Medical Correspondent Avis Favro and Producer Elizabeth St. Philip, CTV News Montreal Bureau Chief Genevieve Beauchemin, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press.