Toronto Sick Kids Hospital reports a dozen confirmed cases of Acute flaccid myelitis since September 2018. (Doug Ives/Canadian Press/file)

Polio-like illness reported in Canada

Doctors in Toronto report a small increase in cases of a rare form of sudden paralysis affecting children in Canada. U.S. officials have reported 60 cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) in 22 states.

Cause of illness not clear

The illness causes muscle weakness in one or more limbs. Some patients recover, some have lasting weakness and rarely, a patient dies. Cases occur in children under 15 years old and the average age reported in the United States was four. The condition can be caused by auto immune diseases, exposure to environmental toxins, or a number of viruses, reports the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Conflicting information on prevalence

A Toronto doctor told Canadian Press the Hospital for Sick Children has seen fewer than 20 cases of limb-based paralysis since the beginning of September. About a dozen were confirmed as AFM. Normally the hospital would only see about two cases per year, The statistical incidence of the disease has been about one in a million.

Hand washing will help avoid catching viruses that may trigger AFM, say health officials. (iStock)

A Public Health Agency website says “a confirmed increase of cases above the annual average has not been seen in Canada.” Nonetheless it advises Canadians to reduce their risk of catching AFM the same way as they would fight viruses during the cold and flu season which has just begun in Canada. The advice involves frequent hand washing, coughing or sneezing into the arm rather than hands, keeping common surface areas clean, avoid touching the face with hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

The agency continues to monitor the disease which is reportable as part of World Health Organization surveillance efforts.

Thousands of children in Canada were paralysed during polio outbreaks in the 1950s. (CBC archives)

Bad memories of polio surface

News of this illness reminds older Canadians of the polio epidemics of the 1950s. The fear was so great at the time that children in Halifax were banned from going into churches and theatres. I recall that during an outbreak in Montreal, my mother sent my sister and me to stay with family in Toronto.

Between 1927 and 1962, some 50,000 Canadians were infected with polio. Of those thousands were paralysed for life and 4,700 died.

Vaccines have virtually wiped out polio in India and the rest of the world. (iStock)

Vaccination has mostly wiped out polio

Vaccines to prevent polio were developed and approved, among the first by Jonas Salk in 1955 and by Albert Sabin in 1961. World wide immunization campaign have born results. There were only 22 cases reported in the world in 2017. These were in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Health officials remind Canadians that vaccination is what protects people from polio. There are concerns that several diseases that have virtually disappeared in Canada could make a comeback if the anti-vaccination movement gains traction.

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