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Number of children linked to mystery illness rises in Washington; local doctor responds

SEATTLE– The number of children linked to a mysterious, polio-like illness has grown in Washington.

There are eight confirmed cases of Acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, which has affected children between the ages of 3 and 14, a syndrome that attacks the nervous system and can lead to muscle weakness and even paralysis.

This week, three more children in our state are being tested for AFM — two from King County and one from Spokane.

We first heard about the AFM investigation a day after Q13 News interviewed the family of 6-year old Daniel Ramirez. He had a rare illness that started as a stomach ache but started attacking his brain. One day after Q13 News aired his story, the Washington State Health Department and Seattle Children’s Hospital held a press conference announcing nine children were being investigated for AFM.

Doctors now say Ramirez did not have AFM. The illness that killed him on October 30 is still unknown, but his story shed light on a mystery illness affecting other children, with three more kids being checked for AFM this week in our state, which means the number of cases could grow to 11.

“It’s a relatively serious condition and it affects children so by that definition alone it’s concerning,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin with the King County Health Department.

Duchin says the condition is rare.

“It’s not very common, which is good. It doesn’t spread from person to person, the AFM itself, which is good, and it seems to be limited to late summer and early fall, at least based on what we know from 2014,” said Duchin.

However, there is a lot that doctors still don’t know.

“We don’t know what’s causing it; we don’t know the best ways to prevent it or treat it,” said Duchin.

Symptoms of AFM can vary, from minor muscle weakness to paralysis like teen Hayden Werdal of Bremerton experienced when he contracted AFM two years ago.

“The worst thing you can do is get in your head and mope all day; you just have to keep pushing on,” said Werdal.

They’re words from a 15-year-old now living with a syndrome, but because it’s one that is relatively new, but doctors said it’s hard to tell if kids will fully recover from it but doctors like Dr. Duchin are hopeful answers will come soon.

“I’m pretty confident that over time, we’ll find the cause but it will take a lot of different cases being investigated before we put the pieces together,” said Dr. Duchin.

Doctors said AFM comes after contracting a virus, so the only advice about prevention they can give is to do the things you would to prevent the spread of a typical virus, so washing of hands and staying away from those who might be coughing or sneezing.

Doctors said the reason it’s difficult to trace AFM is because by the time these patients come into the hospital with symptoms of AFM, the virus that likely triggered it is out of their system.