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Researchers Look For Clues To Polio-Like Illness In California Children

Since late 2012, between 20 and 25 children in California have developed sudden, permanent paralysis that looks similar to polio. Doctors and public health officials are looking for causes and similarities in the cases.

Dr. Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, looked closely at five cases. Two of the samples tested positive for enterovirus 68, a rare virus which is from the same family as the polio virus.

Van Haren joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss his research.

Interview Highlights: Dr. Keith Van Haren

On what links these patients’ cases

“What we describe in the case series are five patients and I’ve since seen a few more at Stanford and we’ve heard of quite a few more in the larger state of California, although the additional cases we haven’t been able to view and confirm in any greater detail – we’ll be doing that shortly. However the interesting thing about the cases is that none of the children had any contact with each other so what we think is that this is a rare manifestation of a rare virus. And again we’re presuming this is a virus because we know of other viruses that can do this.”

On what parents should do

“I actually would encourage parents to do nothing differently. Any parent noticing acute paralysis in their child would, by instinct, consult a doctor promptly and that’s exactly what they should continue to do.”

On what doctors should do

“That’s actually the audience that I think can make the biggest difference here, is that if we get doctors to begin thinking more broadly about diagnoses and to consider the possibility of a polio-like syndrome, I think we’d be make headway. What doctors need to look for is two simple things. One is the acute onset of flaccid weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs, and the second is an MRI lesion affecting the central part of the spinal cord. Those two items together are quite specific and can really help narrow the diagnosis quite quickly. Now, there are many things that can do that as the CDC and others have said, and that’s an important thing to consider.”


  • Keith Van Haren, pediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

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