Nobody seems to know what is causing the “polio-like” condition known as acute flaccid myelitis (AFM). Public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keep stating they don’t know why healthy children are being randomly paralyzed around the country and scientists and medical doctors outside the nation’s top health agency are scratching their heads, too.
Everyone is perplexed about this mystery neurological illness that causes paralysis, mostly in children. “This is a mystery so far, and we haven’t solved it yet, so we have to be thinking broadly,” said Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.1 2
Thinking broadly. Now, that would be a good thing for a change. Most often when a mysterious illness emerges and public health officials and doctors are unable to immediately identify an obvious cause, the tendency is to focus on a virus that can be transmitted from human to human.
In 2016 during the big Zika scare, public health officials focused on a mosquito that they said could transmit a virus that infects humans. The CDC quickly determined within a few weeks that the cause of the sudden spike in infants born with microcephaly (small head size) in Brazil in 2015 was the Zika virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that, when it infects pregnant women, can cause their babies to be born with small heads and brain damage.3 4 5
In an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Jan. 13, 2016, Anthony Fauci, MD and David Morens, MD of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said there was a “lack of definitive proof of any causal relationship” between Zika and the microcephaly cases in Brazil.6 7
Throughout 2016, several studies conducted in Latin America and the United States either found no causal relationship between Zika and microcephaly or pointed to the possibility of toxic chemicals in the environment being the cause.8 9 10 11 12
Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the Zika-microcephaly connection and the fact that the apparent microcephaly epidemic in its very early stages, the CDC hastily announced on Apr. 13, 2016 that, “after careful review of existing evidence,” Zika was indeed “a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.” The CDC conclusion was based on a single paper written in a matter of weeks by four of its researchers.4 13
Note that only two months earlier, a World Health Organization (WHO) Zika situation report had stated, “No scientific evidence to date confirms a link between Zika virus and microcephaly.”14 And just previous to that, the CDC had stated, “Additional studies are needed to determine the degree to which Zika might be linked with microcephaly.”15
What happened to all those “additional studies”? Why was the CDC in such a rush to blame the Zika virus for the increased number of microcephaly cases in Brazil, particularly when there was credible research suggesting the microcephaly cases might be caused by toxic agricultural chemicals being heavily sprayed in the region (Pernambuco state) of the country most affected by the apparent epidemic?9
One possible answer can be found in a letter written by Tom Frieden, MD (then director of the CDC) and published as an opinion piece on Apr. 1, 2016. Dr. Frieden wrote:
At CDC, we are scaling up lab capacity to test for Zika infection and strengthening efforts to control the mosquito that spreads Zika. Faster diagnostics are needed, as are effective mosquito control strategies. We are working to further evaluate the relationship between Zika and microcephaly, as well as with other neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome. With the National Institutes of Health as the lead and support from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), we are working to accelerate vaccine development to fully protect our future generations.
So without knowing for sure whether a mosquito-borne virus was causing the microcephaly, the CDC decided to “accelerate vaccine development to fully protect our future generations”? It appears that CDC officials were not thinking very broadly at the time, but rather were dead set on identifying a virus as the cause of microcephaly. Pointing the finger at a virus as the culprit of microcephaly would facilitate the move to develop a new vaccine and attract hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money to fund the effort.18 Two weeks later, Frieden announced to the world that Zika was that culprit, and a few months after that the CDC had its money, and the Zika industry was born.13
Is microcephaly going to be the model for AFM? Despite Dr. Messonnier’s call for “thinking broadly,” is the CDC already considering finding an infectious virus to blame for AFM? After all, viruses are convenient scapegoats, particularly when health authorities are stumped about the cause of a mysterious illness and start to feel pressure to come up with an answer. Any answer.
A virus represents something tangible to combat against—to mobilize forces and develop a vaccine against. This, even though the reality is we carry lots of viruses within us that do not harm us in the least bit.19
According to the CDC, “There are a variety of possible causes of AFM, such as viruses and environmental toxins.”20
That is currently the agency’s official line on AFM, and the media is consistently relaying that position to the public. But there are already some signs that this may be changing. A recent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic magazine is titled “The Main Suspect Behind an Ominous Spike in a Polio-Like Illness”. Its subheading is, “A common virus seems to be behind a puzzling condition that’s paralyzing children, but uncertainties remain.”21
Yong writes, “So far, most of the signs point toward a virus as the cause, and specifically some kind of enterovirus.” He quotes Roberta DeBiasi, MD of Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC as saying, “It’s not too far of a jump” to suspect a virus. Yong cites an enterovirus known as EV-D68 as having “emerged as the lead suspect.”21
Is a push for an AFM or EV-D68 vaccine in the offing? Is it inevitable?
Yet, it appears there is still a fair amount of disagreement within the medical community about whether the leading candidate for the cause of AFM—a virus—is contagious. On Oct. 29, 2018, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD stated that whatever is causing AFM “doesn’t appear to be transmissible from human to human.” He added, “We don’t see clustering in families.”22
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. AFM Investigation. CDC.gov.
2 Nedelman M. 155 cases of polio-like illness now under investigation, CDC says. CNN Oct. 23, 2018.
3 Cáceres M. CDC Bets Farm on Zika Based on Conclusion of Rasmussen, Jamieson, Honein & Petersen Paper. The Vaccine Reaction Sept. 10, 2016.
4 Rasmussen SA, Jamieson DJ, Honein MA, Petersen LR. Zika Virus and Birth Defects—Reviewing the Evidence for Causality. N Engl J Med 2016; 374:1981-1987.
5 Cáceres M. CDC’s Rasmussen Paper on Zika and Microcephaly: Poor Case for ‘Smoking Gun’. The Vaccine Reaction Dec. 20, 2016.
6 Cáceres M. Jumping the Gun on the Zika-Microcephaly Connection. The Vaccine Reaction Jan. 25, 2016.
7 Fauci A, Morens D. Zika Virus in the Americas—Yet Another Arbovirus Threat. The New England Journal of Medicine Jan. 13, 2016.
8 Lopez-Camelo JS, Orioli IM. ECLAMC Final Document. Nature Dec. 30, 2015.
9 Avila Vazquez M and Team REDUAS. REPORT from Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages regarding Dengue-Zika, microcephaly, and mass-spraying with chemical poisons. Red Universitaria de Ambiente y Salud Feb. 3, 2016.
10 Zika Virus May Now Be Tied to Another Brain Disease. American Academy of Neurology (press release) April 2016.
11 Bar-Yam Y, Evans D, Parens R, Morales AJ, Nijhout F. Is Zika the cause of Microcephaly? Status Report June 22, 2016. New England Complex Systems Institute.
12 CD Velho Barreto de Araújo T, Cunha Rodrigues L, Arraes de Alencar Ximenes R, de Barros Miranda-Filho D, Ramos Montarroyos U, Lopes de Melo AP, Valongueiro S, Pessoa Militão de Albuquerque MF, Vieira Souza W, Braga C, Pinto Brandão Filho S, Tenório Cordeiro M, Vazquez E, Di Cavalcanti Souza Cruz D, Maierovitch Pessanha Henriques C, Albuquerque Bezerra LC, da Silva Castanha PM, Dhalia R, Torres Azevedo Marques-Júnior E, Turchi Martelli, CM. Association between Zika virus infection and microcephaly in Brazil, January to May, 2016: preliminary report of a case-control study. The Lancet Sept. 15, 2016.
13 CDC. CDC Concludes Zika Causes Microcephaly and Other Birth Defects. CDC.gov Apr. 13, 2016.
14 World Health Organization (WHO). Zika situation report. WHO.int Feb. 12, 2016.
15 CDC. Question and Answers: Zika virus infection (Zika) and pregnancy. CDC.gov.
16 Cáceres M. Dr. Frieden’s Zika Letter: A False Alarm? The Vaccine Reaction Apr. 6, 2016.
17 Frieden T. CDC Chief: Zika is coming. To fully protect Americans we must have the funds we need. Fox News Apr. 1, 2016.
18 Cáceres M. So What Became of the $1.9 Billion for Zika? The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 17, 2016.
19 Cáceres M. Viruses, Always the Easy Scapegoat. The Vaccine Reaction Feb. 3, 2016.
20 CDC. About Acute Flaccid Myelitis. CDC.gov.
21 Yong E. The Main Suspect Behind an Ominous Spike in a Polio-Like Illness. The Atlantic Oct. 25, 2018.
22 CDC director says polio-like illness acute flaccid myelitis “doesn’t appear to be transmissible.” CBS News Oct. 29, 2018.