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Minnesota researcher finds possible virus link to acute flaccid myelitis

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An electron micrograph of a thin section of enterovirus D68
An electron micrograph of a thin section of enterovirus D68, showing the numerous, spherical viral particles.
Cynthia S. Goldsmith and Yiting Zhang via CDC

A researcher from the University of Minnesota has identified a virus associated with a disease that can cause sudden paralysis in children.  

Between September and November, state health officials learned six Minnesota children suddenly had weakness in their arms and legs. One of the children remains in the hospital and all continue to have weak limbs, according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

Heidi Moline, chief pediatrics resident at the University of Minnesota, examined the cases of the children diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM. 

Moline said the virus, enterovirus D68, was found in the cerebrospinal fluid of one of the six patients, "which helps explain one of the causes of AFM and better characterize this illness."

She said the virus is spread by coughing or sneezing and usually spikes in the fall every couple of years.

All the cases of AFM in Minnesota last fall had a unique characteristic.

"It was amazing to hear parents describe their child as going to bed the night before, feeling well and not showing any signs of illness or weakness. And waking up in the morning and not being able to brush their hair or walk down the stairs," Moline said.

The CDC report said the children all lived in different counties in Minnesota and had no contact to suggest they had infected each other. Moline said it's not clear why those children in particular came down with AFM. All had fever or upper respiratory symptoms before the weakness set in. 

AFM is a rare disease that affects the gray matter area of the spinal cord.  It can lead to symptoms of sudden muscle weakness and occasional paralysis. At the time of the Minnesota cases, other instances of AFM in children were reported elsewhere in the U.S.  The CDC began investigating AFM in 2014 after reports of "a large number of cases."

MPR News reporter Nina Moini contributed to this report.