What Is Transverse Myelitis? Google Searches up After Reported Link to AstraZeneca Coronavirus Vaccine Trial

Pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford have paused a study of their potential coronavirus vaccine after a participant came down with an unexplained illness.

A spokesperson for the COVID-19 Vaccine Team at the Oxford Vaccine Centre told Newsweek in a statement the decision was made after a standard review process was triggered, so safety data could be reviewed.

The spokesperson said: "This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the studies, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials."

Illnesses will happen by chance in trials, and must be independently reviewed, they said.

The spokesperson declined to comment when asked for further details about the participant, including whether the individual had transverse myelitis, as reported in the media.

Newsweek has also contacted AstraZeneca for comment.

The New York Times reported that a volunteer in the U.K. trial had been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, citing a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It was not known whether the condition was caused by the vaccine.

Following the publication of The New York Times report, there was a huge spike in Google searches for transverse myelitis.

What Is Transverse Myelitis?

The neurological disorder is characterized by inflammation of either one section or both sides of the spinal cord, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can lead to damage of the material covering nerve cell fibers, called myelin. The condition interrupts the signals the spinal cord nerves send in the body.

In general, the cause of transverse myelitis is unknown, and in some cases there is no clear reason for a person falling ill. Infections affecting the spinal causes may trigger it, as well as problems with the immune system where the body's tissue is attacked, and disorders involving myelin, like multiple sclerosis.

Viruses including the flu, herpes, HIV, West Nile, Zika, Hepatitis B, mumps, measles, and rubella have been linked to the disorder. Bacterial infections like Lyme disease, tuberculosis, and syphilis are also associated with it.

Symptoms can include pain, which can be different depending on which part of the spine is affected. Pain can start suddenly in the lower back. Transverse myelitis can also cause sharp shooting pains in the arms, legs, chest, or abdomen.

Patients can experience numbness, tingling, coldness, or burning, become sensitive to the feel of clothing, or the extreme hot or cold. Some feel as though the skin of their chest, abdomen, or legs is being tightly wrapped.

Symptoms also include heaviness in the legs, severe weakness, or paralysis. Those with transverse myelitis may also need to pee more often, experience urinary incontinence, or have problems emptying their bladder or bowels.

The signs and symptoms can come on after a few hours or days and may continue to progress slowly over a period of weeks.

Patients with the condition may be treated with medication and rehabilitative therapy, and most are able to make some form of recovery. In serious cases, it can cause major disabilities.

The Mayo Clinic advises those experiencing the signs and symptoms of transverse myelitis to calling their doctor or seeking emergency medical care.

coronavirus vaccine, stock, getty
A stock image shows a face mask, needle and tube marked "COVID-19." AstraZeneca has paused a study on its potential coronavirus vaccine. Getty