Polio-like Virus in California: Enterovirus-68 Paralyzing Kids


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How similar to polio is the enterovirus-68? Image of skeletal muscle tissue affected by polio courtesy of the CDC

How similar to polio is the enterovirus-68? Image of skeletal muscle tissue affected by polio courtesy of the CDC

Human enterovirus-68 is circulating around California, causing serious illnesses and paralysis among children.

Researchers are describing the effects of this virus as having similar symptoms to polio.

The cause of enterovirus-68 remains unknown, but researchers and medical professionals in California are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine what caused the 25 recent cases to date in the U.S. – although this strain of the enterovirus has been around for long enough to give researchers reason to recommend global monitoring just a few years ago.

Enterovirus-68: Current cases

To date, there are 25 cases in California, including five cases where the children had unexplained paralysis. The five cases of unexplained paralysis are children in the San Francisco Bay area. Two of these children tested positive for the human enterovirus-68, but the other three did not. Children ages two to 16 have been affected between August 2012 and July 2013. While we still don’t understand why why this is occurring or whether there will be more cases, we do know that there have been similar cases in children in Asia and Australia, according to NBC News.

What is the Human Enterovirus?

The human enterovirus-68 is part of a group of viruses called enterovirus. Enteroviruses are common; science has identified more than 60 different types of enteroviruses. These viruses are the second most common cause of illness in the United States; they follow just behind the common cold. Each time you get one of these viruses, your body builds up immunity to them, so young children and adolescents are more likely to get sick from an enterovirus than adults.

Human enterovirus-68 (HEV-68) is a rare virus. Where most enterovirus cases cause no symptoms or only very mild symptoms, a few, such as the HEV-68 can cause serious illnesses. These unusual viruses include coxsackieviruses and echoviruses. Polioviruses are also included in this group, but the United States has eradicated polio via vaccine, developed in the 1950’s.

Polio-like Virus: Signs and Symptoms

Enteroviruses have a wide range of symptoms since there are so many different types. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms for all types of enteroviruses that are not polio-related range from flu-like illness to mouth blisters, rashes, body and muscle aches, sneezing, coughing, and runny noses.

These non-polio enterovirus infections can also cause illnesses such as viral conjunctivitis (pink eye), hand, foot, and mouth disease, and viral meningitis.

In some rare cases, the enterovirus can cause serious illnesses such as infections of the heart, encephalitis (which is an infection of the brain), and in some cases can cause paralysis.

Polio-like Virus: Cases around the world

This virus was first isolated in 1962 and very few cases have been presented until recently,where an increase in severe respiratory tract infections associated with HEV-68 have been reported.

In a study entitled, “Lineages, Sub-Lineages and Variants of Enterovirus 68 in Recent Outbreaks” researchers describe two clusters of infections that occurred in South London, UK in the autumn/winters of 2009 and 2010. Researchers studied the virus and found that it had significant similarities to illnesses from other countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, and the Philippines, which reported outbreaks between the years 2008 and 2010. The researchers recommended continuous global monitoring of this virus at that time.

In another study entitled, “Molecular Evolution of Enterovirus 68 Detected in the Philippines” researchers found that HEX-68 infections maybe occurring in a cyclic pattern. After testing 5,240 samples in the Philippines, researchers found 12 cases which tested positive for this polio-like virus between August and December 2011. Of the positive cases, some cases matched the strain that occurred in the Philippines in 2008, whereas others were closer to the United States strains.

Researchers concluded that there maybe a pattern to the occurrence of the enterovirus and that some of the strains were local to the community whereas other strains were brought in.

Sudden Paralysis in Children

While this virus is rare, doctors are asking parents to watch out for any signs of sudden weakness. If your children have any form or degree of paralysis, call your pediatrician.

Testing has confirmed that the children in California do not have polio and while health officials are only seeing this condition in California, Dr. Van Haren, a neurology professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine tells USA Today that there maybe other cases out there, it’s just that no one is looking for it. Once the word gets out about this HEV-68 virus, will other cases come to light? Only time will tell.

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