Life After Enterovirus: One Child's Continued Struggle with Paralysis

Four-year-old Allen Howe was paralyzed and is still learning how to walk.

December 30, 2014, 5:58 PM

— -- Allen Howe was a typical 4-year-old, goofy and playful, until one day a few months ago when he became very sick.

What started out as a fever and a nagging cough quickly developed into 80 percent of his body becoming paralyzed, so much so he was unable to lift his head.

The sudden onset of paralysis, baffling to his doctors, was a horrible nightmare for his mother.

“I felt helpless,” Teresa Howe said. “He was lying in bed and he literally was screaming, ‘help me, Mom,’ and I’m just bawling.”

Allen’s parents took him to C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, where the team of doctors who worked on him believe a virus, called enterovirus D68, which caused Allen’s cough, may have also caused his sudden paralysis. ED-V68 comes from the same viral family as polio.

As hospitals across the country brace for a flu season that could shape up to be worse and deadlier than in years past, it was just months ago that many had to treat young patients with a nasty strain of enterovirus, one that in extreme cases caused death.

From August to December this year, there have 1,152 confirmed cases of enterovirus D68 in 49 states and Washington, D.C., almost all of them in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

To date, 12 of those confirmed cases resulted in death, the CDC reports, whereas 15 children have already died from flu this season.

But many families are dealing with enterovirus aftermath, with cases of paralysis noted in California, Colorado, and more recently in Texas and various Southern states. Michigan was hit hard.

Dr. Marie Lozon and her staff at C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital dealt with various enterovirus cases, including a few that led to paralysis.

“We added extra doctors and nurses, every day on every shift,” Lozon said of the hospital dealing with enterovirus these past few months. “We called back time off and we used our existing doctors staff, our faculty staff and said, ‘guys, we have to run our enterovirus shift. Let’s make reasoned decisions about when we can make sure all the patients are safe, and handle the surge.’”

“Nightline” was granted exclusive access inside C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital for several days in October during the height of the enterovirus season, as doctors tried to crack the mystery of how the virus attacked.

Lozon said when she saw an alarming spike in both ED-V68 and pediatric paralysis, she started putting the pieces together.

“As soon as the respiratory cycle settled down a little bit, we started seeing children come in with this acute paralysis, and people started to link the enterovirus with that,” she said. “I cannot speak to causation. I am not saying the enterovirus brought about the paralysis. But you can see where the link came.”

This enterovirus season, which began in the summer, is now over, Lozon said. While it’s impossible to predict the intensity of next season, she said the virus will return. Until then, doctors are still learning from the cases they are still treating months after initial diagnosis.

When Allen was battling the virus, he was on a feeding tube because his throat muscles were affected by the paralysis. He had physical therapy twice a day, which required him to be strapped to a gurney, as hospital staff helped re-train his muscles, bending and straightening his legs as he cried in pain.

It was tough for a 4-year-old to understand why he can no longer play with his little brother, but amid the frustration and pain, there was hope, because Allen started making progress.

After a month of treatment and therapy, Allen was allowed to go home just in time for Thanksgiving. Today, he has recovered enough muscle tone to walk again with the support of a walker or his mother helping him.

Dr. Marie Lozon said rather than parents panicking over EV-D68, which can be treated but has no vaccine, they should take the necessary steps to protect loved ones against the viruses that do, such as the flu.

“Every year, 36,000 Americans, roughly, die from a flu, and a certain percentage of those are children,” she said. “Our best tool is a yearly influenza vaccination, which is recommended by expert groups in our country.”

And as when dealing with most viruses, the best defense against enterovirus is common sense.

“We have a viral surges every year… now enterovirus is just another of the viruses that we’ve seen,” she said. “Yes it made children very, very sick, but a lot of kids, it just gave them a really bad cold and cough, and they were fine at home.”

“I think we cover our cough. We use good hand hygiene and common sense. You would never send your child to school, feverish and coughing … and if we do that, we’re going to get through this,” Lozon added.

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