Doctors have struggled for decades to understand why thousands of children a year in the U.S. get Kawasaki disease, a rare condition that can cause serious heart damage if untreated, but is often mistaken for an everyday virus.
Now, a team of international scientists has announced the surprising finding that the answer may be blowing in the wind. The team’s leader, Dr. Jane C. Burns, professor of pediatrics and director of the Kawasaki Disease Research Center at the University of California San Diego, says cases of the disease are linked to large-scale wind currents whipping throughout Asia and around the North Pacific.
“We’ve always tried to find the cause of Kawasaki disease. There was this mysterious disease and nobody knew where it came from,” says Burns, also a pediatrician at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “We realized that there was a very pronounced seasonality to it. As a pediatrician and scientist, that said to me there must be something related to climate, and we sought the help of climatologists.”
Researchers discovered the number of Kawasaki disease cases increased in Japan when the wind blew in a southwesterly direction, and were lower when winds shifted, blowing from the south. They also discovered the numbers of cases peaked from November to March when air from Central Asia blew over Japan and reached as far as Hawaii and San Diego.
Scientists still don’t know what’s in the air that might be causing the rise in cases. In March, the team sent up a research aircraft five or six miles above Japan, to collect air samples. The team is hoping to get funding to do additional research, including sending up many more aircraft to collect dust and analyze its genetic material for fungus, bacteria or viruses.
“We don’t know what’s in there; no one’s done this before,” Burns says. “But we’ll find out.”
Parents or pediatricians may not be as concerned about what’s in the samples as much as what Kawasaki disease looks like and what to do about it.
The disease causes a prolonged fever, blood-shot eyes, red lips, red tongue, and also red, swollen hands and feet with peeling skin. Since early symptoms resemble those of the flu, it’s often misdiagnosed – and there isn’t a diagnostic test for it.
Last year, doctors were stumped by what was wrong with Deborah Copaken Kogan’s son, Leo, who they initially thought had strep throat. When he was worse several days later, she posted a photo of him on Facebook and quickly heard from a friend who is a pediatrician and also a cousin who is a pediatric cardiologist. Both suspected Kawasaki disease. She rushed him to the hospital and he eventually recovered. She recounted her story on the TODAY show.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,000 to 6,000 American children get the disease each year, most under the age of 5, although it has also been known to strike young adults.
While any child can come down with Kawasaki disease, Asians and African Americans seem to be most susceptible, followed by Hispanics and Caucasians, Burns said.
Treatment for the disease is a high intravenous dose of immunoglobulin, or antibodies, but 10 to 20 percent of children who get care still wind up with coronary artery damage. It’s fatal for about 1 in 10,000.
The key is for parents and doctors to recognize the signs, Burns says.
“Parents should seek medical attention and ask about Kawasaki disease if fever lasts beyond five days and is associated with rash, red eyes and lips.”