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Kawasaki Disease – an ill wind that blows nobody any good?

By Martin Laine     May 21, 2014 in Science
A new study suggests that the cause of Kawasaki Disease, which affects thousands of children every year, may be carried along by winds from a farming region of China.
If so, it would be the first known instance of a human disease caused by a windborne pathogen.
The disease usually strikes children between the ages of six months and five years of age, and first causes fever, rash, bloodshot eyes, and swollen hands and feet. It can also cause an inflammation of the coronary arteries, leading to heart problems, sometimes fatal, later in life, according to an article on the Science News website.
The disease is most common in Japan, where 12,000 children are stricken every year, and about 6,000 every year in the United States. It occurs in other parts of the world, to a somewhat lesser extent. Though Kawasaki Disease was first identified about 40 years ago, its exact cause is still unknown.
A curious aspect of the disease is the seasonal fluctuations of the outbreaks, with large numbers of children coming down with it at the same time — too fast for it to be transmitted from person to person. About 10 years ago, an international team of researchers began studying weather patterns during times of peak outbreaks, and noticed a coincidence with winds originating from central Asia, according to an article on the National Geographic news website.
In this new study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers looked further into this coincidence. They examined health records in Japan over a 40-year period, looking at those days when the most cases were identified. They then looked at the wind patterns for the days leading up to the outbreaks. They found that the air over Japan at the time of the outbreaks had spent time over the same agricultural region known as the Northeast China Plain.
“A more focused investigation should center in this area to precisely determine whether pesticides or fertilizers used have had a role,” said Xavier Rodo, a climate scientist at the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences and lead author of the study, adding there is “no doubt that agricultural practices have an important implication in this story.”
They also collected samples of air that had come from that area, and found several species of a fungus that has caused similar symptoms to Kawasaki Disease in mice, though they stopped short of identifying it as the exact cause of the disease. They plan to conduct further research.
“I think these authors have presented a dataset that is pretty conclusive that this is most likely a microbial toxin of some type,” said environmental microbiologist Dale Griffin of the U.S. Geological Survey.”
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