Doctors are stumped as to why there's been a recent increase in the number of those afflicted. The California Department of Public Health knows of at least 20 cases statewide; six of them are in Southern California.
As researchers struggle to find a cause and a definitive way to make a diagnosis, the family of 2-year-old Lucian Olivera has decided to come forward in hopes it will help other families. After a year and a half of battling the mysterious illness, the Olivera family is finally getting some answers.
In June 2012, Lucian was nearly 11 months old, very adventurous and already walking. He had an ear infection and a low-grade fever, and then his dad noticed something strange.
"He dropped to one side. His left side was leaning to the left," said Israel Olivera.
Lucian dragged his legs when he crawled. Three ER visits ended with the family going home and doctors puzzled. Three days later, his mom was changing his diaper and he let out a scream.
"It sounded like I was removing toe nails. It was the worst scream I ever heard," said his mother, Erin Olivera.
Lucian endured nearly a month of testing, but doctors remained baffled. Finally, this week, the Olivera family got their answer. Stanford University researchers, who have been tracking this mystery illness, called with the offiical diagnosis: California polio-like syndrome.
"My first reaction was happy and then I got a little sad, because I knew that, as a parent, you always hold on to this little bit of hope that we can fix this," said Erin.
Scientists don't know the cause, but suspect a virus similar to the one that causes polio. Enterovirus-68 was detected in about two or three of the cases. But experts say this polio-like syndrome is not contagious.
"Just because somebody developed a paralytic side effect from a viral infection, it doesn't mean that the next person is going to get that. So there's no evidence that that's the case," said Dr. John Dingilian with Simi Valley Hospital. "We are in no way at an epidemic level. There does not appear to be concern that this is rapidly spreading through the community."
Doctors say the damage to Lucian's legs is permanent, but rehab therapy at the Child Development Center at Simi Valley Hospital is helping Lucian work around his left leg.
"There's no nerve innervation into the muscle so therefore it ends up atrophying," said Karen Newsome with the Child Development Center.
The goal is to strengthen his right leg so Lucian will learn to stand on his own and walk with a cane instead of a walker. And while Lucian's parents are heartbroken, their son reminds them he's going to be OK.
"When you're just having a moment of down, he'll go, 'Momma, I love you more than a camel.' And you just melt," said Erin. "We have to remain strong for him."
UC San Francisco and Stanford researchers will present the latest information in April at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.