Erin Olivera waited weeks for doctors to tell her why her youngest son was paralyzed.
Ten-month-old Lucian had started crawling oddly — his left leg dragging behind his right — and soon was unable to lift his head, following Erin only with his eyes.
She took him to a hospital in Los Angeles, but doctors there didn’t know how to treat what they saw.
Lucian’s legs felt soft as jelly and he couldn’t move them. His breathing became rapid. The left side of his smile drooped as his muscles weakened.
Physicians ran test after test, and Erin began spending her nights on a hospital room couch. After Lucian fell asleep, during her only minutes alone between working and visiting her three other kids, she cried.
A terrifying reality was taking hold: Doctors wouldn’t be able to give her a diagnosis for her paralyzed child….
“How can I make a decision for him when I don’t even know what’s wrong?” she said. “What can I do to help him?”
So one morning in July of 2012, Erin lifted Lucian out of his hospital bed, his body limp and heavy. She rested his cheek on her shoulder, the way he liked to be held since he’d become weak.
Erin returned home to Ventura County with a child she thought might never learn to walk.
In the years since, hundreds of children across the country have shown up at hospitals unable to move their arms or legs. Dozens of kids have become paralyzed in the past few months alone.
They suffer from a mysterious illness that continues to alarm and puzzle scientists. This kind of sudden and devastating paralysis hasn’t been widespread since the days of polio. Lucian, one of the disease’s earliest victims, set off a hunt among doctors to discover its cause….
Now the future felt upended by questions about their youngest son — whether he’d ever be able to drive a car, get married, have kids.
They took him to more doctors, but that failed to bring a diagnosis, let alone a treatment.
Through months of physical therapy, Lucian eventually regained strength in most of his limbs, but still couldn’t move his left leg at all. When he crawled, it dragged behind…
Then one day, she came across an article online about a dozen paralyzed kids. She immediately thought of Lucian.
The article mentioned Dr. Keith Van Haren, a Stanford University child neurologist who had diagnosed many of the other cases.
She called him…
A handful of physicians had seen patients with similar symptoms and asked Dr. Carol Glaser to test them for polio.
“I thought, ‘Well that’s crazy. We don’t have polio here,” said Glaser, then head of the encephalitis and special investigations section at the California Department of Public Health. Glaser quickly determined the patients weren’t suffering from polio. She also tested for pathogens that can sometimes cause such paralysis, including West Nile virus. All negative.
Then she decided to check for other viruses in the same family as poliovirus, known as enterovirus. And in some of the paralyzed patients, she found a possible culprit: enterovirus D-68.
Enterovirus D-68 was incredibly rare, almost never seen after it was first discovered in 1962 in four California children who had pneumonia. Though a cousin of poliovirus, it was only supposed to cause a runny nose and cough.
Van Haren had never heard of it…
One, two, three or four limbs paralyzed. Sudden onset. No cognitive changes.
Lucian fit the bill.
Within minutes, Van Haren delivered the diagnosis: polio-like paralysis likely caused by enterovirus D-68...
In late summer of 2014, enterovirus D-68 started sending kids struggling to breathe to emergency rooms around the country. News reports called it a rare, cold-causing virus, a danger to children with asthma.
But then an 11-year-old boy in Texas with a seemingly normal fever lost the ability to walk and move his right arm.
A 17-year-old girl in Santa Barbara experienced severe neck pain at her birthday party and ended up in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.
In Oregon, a 13-year-old boy’s diaphragm stopped working, so he needed a ventilator to breathe. He was completely paralyzed, able only to wiggle his toes and his right hand.
Whatever was happening to these children was “pretty much, literally, exactly, what polio did,” said Dr. Jean-Baptiste Le Pichon, a child neurologist who treated four such patients in 2014 at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Glaser watched from California as the numbers of paralyzed kids grew. She became horrified that her theory about enterovirus D-68 might be correct...
Erin hoped the new cases would lead to a cure for her son.
But doctors say that though the disabled children can regain strength in some limbs, there’s usually also some paralysis that cannot be reversed — just like with polio.
Scientists think a virus travels to the spinal cord and damages motor function there, irreversibly…
Between June and August this year, another 30 children nationwide became paralyzed, and scientists still don’t know why.
Dr. Manisha Patel, who heads the acute flaccid myelitis team for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency is concerned by the increase and its resemblance to 2014. Experts think case numbers for September and October will be even higher.
But there’s not much public health officials can do, because the paralysis officially remains a medical mystery.
Many suspect that enterovirus D-68 — which gave hundreds of people a severe cold in 2014 — also caused the paralysis outbreak that year. Some of the paralyzed children had enterovirus D-68 in their system, and researchers have found that injecting mice with enterovirus D-68 paralyzes them.
But to confirm the link, doctors need to find enterovirus D-68 in the paralyzed children’s cerebrospinal fluid, to show that the virus traveled to the spinal cord and created the injury there — which they haven’t yet…
And physicians are still baffled that no one had noticed the possible risk of paralysis before.
Some think there hadn’t ever been enough cases of enterovirus D-68 to unmask the horrifying side effect; only 26 people tested positive for the virus in 36 years. Another possibility is that enterovirus D-68 recently mutated to become more likely to paralyze those infected.
For now, experts say that enterovirus D-68 isn’t enough of a threat to make a vaccine and that many people now have immunity to the virus from the 2014 outbreak. Plus, it will probably mutate again, rendering a vaccine that protects against the current strain useless.
“You kind of hold your breath and hope it doesn’t get worse,” Van Haren said.
Courtesy of Doximity