A mysterious illness paralysing suddenly hundreds of children across the US continues to alarm and puzzle scientists.
Children have shown up at hospitals unable to move their arms or legs. Dozens of kids have become paralyzed in the past few months alone.
This kind of sudden and devastating paralysis hasn’t been widespread since the days of polio.
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.
Before Lucian got sick, he liked to sit on the floor in the kitchen of his home in Moorpark, his small hands pressed against the glass door to the backyard as he tried to stand. He’d roll around, babbling at the dogs outside.
The child Erin brought home from the hospital didn’t have enough strength to crawl and couldn’t always sit up on his own.
On his first birthday, three weeks after he came home, Erin and her husband, Israel, propped Lucian up with pillows in a high chair. He giggled as he smeared red frosting on his bare chest and in his blonde hair.
After the kids went to bed in the evenings, Erin and Israel would whisper about Lou-Lou, as they called him. When Erin was pregnant, the couple had decided Lucian would be their last child. They wanted to save money, perhaps take a family vacation. Erin would focus on graduating from nursing school.
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.
Desperate, Erin resorted to endless internet searches looking for clues about her son’s condition.
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.
Around the time Lucian first got sick in 2012, Van Haren was flummoxed by a young girl who’d just shown up at his clinic at Stanford.
The 3-year-old had been at home recovering from a bad cold when she suddenly couldn’t move her arm. Weeks later, it still hung from her body like dead weight, flopping wildly when she walked.
The paralysis struck Van Haren as unusual.
Doctors had been treating her for an autoimmune disease, as if her body were wrongly attacking its own cells. But if that were the case, her arm wouldn’t be so limp nor would the paralysis be so limited to one spot; Van Haren would expect other parts of her body also to be somewhat weak.
This, Van Haren thought, looked more like the most infamous cause of paralysis: polio. But it was eradicated so long ago in the United States that most doctors here have never seen a case.
“We know about it through history books,” said Van Haren, then just two years out of training.
The girl had been vaccinated against polio. Van Haren didn’t know what to tell her parents.
When he contacted California’s health department about the odd case, he learned that scientists there had already developed a hunch.
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.
Glaser asked Van Haren to consult for the health department, and together they watched for more paralysis cases. Their findings were preliminary, but what if they were accurate? What if there were an outbreak?