CHEO confirms 3rd case of rare polio-like illness

CHEO has confirmed a third case of acute flaccid myletis, a rare polio-like illness that causes paralysis in children.

Child diagnosed in mid-December, hospital says

Doctors say there is no consistent cause of the illness that mostly affects children and causes paralysis. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

An eastern Ontario pediatric health and research centre has confirmed that another child has been diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, a rare polio-like illness that causes paralysis.  

A spokesperson for CHEO in Ottawa said a young boy had arrived at the hospital in mid-December and was admitted. The toddler suffered some paralysis of one arm, but was discharged a few days later.  

It's now the third case of the disease diagnosed at the hospital since the summer, and is considered the least serious of the three.  

Very little is known about acute flaccid myelitis, but doctors have determined it's not polio, despite the similar symptoms. 

We've gone through hell.- Rachelle Downton

Those include paralysis of one or more limbs, drooping of the face and eyelids, difficulty with eye movement and swallowing, and slurred speech. 

Children may also have trouble breathing, and in severe cases may require a ventilator due to muscle weakness.

Parents offer support

The parents of another child who suffered similar symptoms say they're hoping to offer support to any other families affected by the mysterious disease.

"We've gone through hell," said Rachelle Downton, whose son Xavier, 5, started showing flu-like symptoms that quickly worsened over the Labour Day long weekend.

The road to recovery hasn't been easy for Xavier or his family. He spent weeks in hospital, but has slowly been improving with physio and occupational therapy, and returned to school shortly before the Christmas holidays.

Xavier Downton was diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis after being rushed to CHEO over the Labour Day long weekend. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

However, he doesn't have fine motor control in his right arm and can only walk with assistance from a walker or in water. Otherwise, he's confined to a wheelchair.

Xavier is a perfectionist, Downton said. "He gets mad or he says 'no I can't do it' if he doesn't think he can do [his exercises] properly."

She hopes the parents of the child recently diagnosed don't lose hope.

"It really gets me that they have to go through that. I don't even know them yet," she said through tears.

Rachelle and Chris Downton say their son Xavier has been improving over the past few months, but can only walk with support from a walker or in water. They're pictured with their other son, Caleb. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

Mystery ailment

Doctors say parents should seek medical help if their child is experiencing a sudden weakness in any part of their body, an unexpected loss of bowel or bladder control, or neck pain.

Doctors don't know what causes the ailment. They also don't know why it affects primarily children, or why so many new cases are being reported now. 

"Parents should remember that AFM is a very rare condition. They shouldn't worry or change how they care for illnesses with common cold or flu-like symptoms, like fever and aching muscles, as there is no way to predict AFM," wrote Dr. Asif Doja, CHEO's chief of neurology, in an email. "Parents will absolutely know when to go to the hospital because the symptoms of this extremely rare disease are dramatic and concerning."

According to Health Canada, the number of cases this year of acute flaccid myelitis is now nearly 70. 

That's up from the average of 27-51 cases per year.