Doctors puzzled by polio-like illness crippling California kids: 'What we’re seeing now is bad'
portrait of a little girl with thermometer in bed

As many as 25 children in California have been afflicted with a rare polio-like illness leaving them with paralyzed limbs and respiratory problems, USA Today reports.

While testing has shown that  none of the children have polio, the new illness has much in common with the infectious viral disease which was all but eliminated following the introduction of a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954.

"What we're seeing now is bad. The best-case scenario is complete loss of one limb, the worst is all four limbs, with respiratory insufficiency, as well," said Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's like the old polio."

The first reported case appeared in 2012 when Sofia Jarvis in Berkeley began to experience wheezing and difficulty breathing. The 2-year-old spent days in the intensive care unit with doctors believing that she had asthma.

Following a check-up her mother, Jessica Tomei, realized something else was wrong.

"As we were leaving the doctor's office, I noticed that she went to grab something with her left arm and she stopped, midway," Tomei said.

Sofia was brought to Dr. Van Haren's clinic with "a unique set of symptoms" where she was treated with steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin therapy, used to reduce the severity of infections by giving the body antibodies to protect against bacteria and viruses.

"None of it helped," said Van Haren, a neurology professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

"He told us right away that the prognosis was really poor and that she's not going to get better," Tomei said.

Today, at age 4, Sofia's left arm is paralyzed and she has weakness in her left leg as well as slight breathing issues.

Since the diagnosis Dr. Van Haren and other neurologists, worried about the possibility of the appearance of a new disease, have searched through recent medical files where they found two more cases, both in the San Francisco Bay area.

"We don't have a final case count, but it's probably in the neighborhood of 25 cases, all in California," said Van Haren.

California is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to see if there are cases outside California. So far none have been reported.

Van Haren suspects the culprit is an enterovirus,  a family of viruses that includes polio but also the milder hand, foot and mouth disease, common in infants and children.

Unfortunately while there's a vaccine for the polio virus, "we don't have vaccines for the other enteroviruses," Van Haren said.

"The California Department of Public Health has asked health care providers to report any polio-like cases they might identify and send specimens so that we can better assess the situation," said Carol Glaser, chief of the encephalitis and special investigation section of the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento.

[Portrait of a little girl with thermometer in bed on Shutterstock]