• AFM causes a polio-like illness in young children
  • Experts expected a 2020 AFM outbreak
  • Social distancing measures likely prevented the AFM outbreak

Scientists had expected that there might be a 2020 outbreak of the mysterious polio-like disease that affects young children. However, a new study found that the COVID-19 measures may have prevented the outbreak from even happening.

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a mysterious condition that affects the spinal cord and causes a weakening of the muscles and reflexes, potentially causing "lifelong disabilities," Princeton University explained in a news release. Experts have yet to determine exactly what causes AFM, but it has been linked to the respiratory illness Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) because the two coincide with outbreak patterns.

Since AFM emerged in the U.S. in 2012, spikes in cases of this rare but serious condition occurred in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Based on this trend, 2020 was due for another AFM outbreak.

Outbreak Prevented

However, using surveillance data, the researchers of a new study, published in Science Translational Medicine, found that the expected AFM outbreak didn't happen, likely because of social distancing measures put in place to help control the spread of COVID-19.

Specifically, there were only 31 AFM cases in 2020. The number is much lower to 153 and 238 AFM cases in 2016 and 2018, respectively,

"Nonpharmaceutical intervention efforts due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have reduced the sizes of EV-D68 and AFM outbreaks in 2020, illustrating the broader epidemiological impact of the pandemic," the researchers wrote.

According to the researchers, an AFM outbreak still could have happened in 2020 "under normal epidemiological conditions," but the COVID-19 social distancing measures likely helped to prevent it.

Despite the positive news, the researchers noted that it's still not the time to be complacent.

"Fortunately, we saw very little EV-D68 circulation in 2020 and few cases of AFM compared to what was expected, but that makes it even more important to be as prepared as possible for what could be coming in 2021 or beyond," study lead, Sang Woo Park of Princeton University's Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, said in the university news release.

As of March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed one case of AFM in 2021. In total, there have been 650 confirmed cases of the condition since the agency began tracking it in August of 2014.

Researchers also found a "strong spatiotemporal association" between EV-D68 and AFM, suggesting that vaccines against EV-D68 could mitigate future AFM outbreaks, Princeton University said.

Hospital Bed
Pictured: Representational image. Pixabay