In 2015, we first began reporting on a baffling, new illness paralyzing children across the country much like polio. The Centers for Disease Control repeatedly told us it had no clue what's causing it --and wouldn't tell us much else. They even kept secret the states where the outbreaks occurred. But this week, CDC issued a new alert about 127 possible cases in 22 states the paralyzed victims’ average age is four years old. Here's an excerpt from our investigation last year.
Mandy Baker was an honor student about to start her sophomore year of high school and went from feeling fine to being paralyzed in a single day. Her illness ran up a $3 million hospital bill for treatments not covered by insurance.
But what was causing the sudden paralysis? Doctors theorized it could be a rare polio-like virus that had also suddenly emerged at the same time: Enterovirus, or EV-D68. Unusually high numbers of kids were showing up at ERs with severe breathing problems from EV-D68.
The CDC, normally quick to raise alarms and speak on TV when there's any threat of infectious disease, wasn't saying much at all this time. They declined our repeated interview requests and instead pointed me a video they provided on Web MD. The video offered little insight.
We requested more information under the Freedom of Information Act. It took CDC more than a year and a half to begin turning over documents. Internal emails show CDC trying to figure out what was triggering paralysis in some of the kids who had the EV-D68 virus. Was it exposure to West Nile virus, insecticides, international travel, or vaccines, particularly oral polio vaccine? Officials say they still can't pinpoint the origin.
One physician, who treated dozens of the paralyzed children, seemed to be looking at the bigger picture: Dr. Benjamin Greenberg.
Sharyl: What's the difference between what we're seeing with these children and polio?
Dr. Benjamin Greenberg: Not much, which is interesting.
Greenberg filled in a lot of blanks on the mysterious afflictions, where CDC would not.
Sharyl: Is it accurate to say this is less contagious than polio?
Dr. Greenberg: We don't know yet. Part of what we're lacking is the ability to go through a population and determine who has been exposed to this virus and who hasn't. We looked at the papers written 100 years ago, describing cases of poliomyelitis in the U.S., and we talked to colleagues from around the world who are actually part of teams who treat polio cases. And to all of our surprises, basically what we were seeing was a polio-like illness, but not from the polio virus.
We contacted Dr. Greenberg this week and he said he's personally treated a half dozen new cases as part of the current outbreak. But still, CDC doesn’t require medical professionals to report new cases so they can be counted and tracked. As for the AFM cases of sudden paralysis that have been reported it adds up to approximately 400 in the US since 2014.