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Machine learning helps find mysterious source of a global illness

Kawasaki disease (or mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome) is a disease where blood vessels throughout the body become inflamed. This is manifest through a five-day fever, enlargement of the lymph nodes, a rashes and sometimes diarrhea. Skin from the hands and feet can also peel. Recovery then typically occurs. The disease is primarily one of children and treatment is usually based on pain killers and the infusion of immunoglobulin.

The disease has been known about since World War II (and described in 1967 by Tomisaku Kawasaki in Japan). Despite the passing of time, the cause is still unknown. Some medics think the disease is due to an infection triggering an autoimmune response in those who have a certain genetically predisposition. It does not appear that the disease can be spread between people.

The disease is rare, but new predictions suggest that the spread of the disease globally is increasing. One leading expert on the disease is Jane Burns. She is a pediatric infectious disease specialist based at Rady Children’s Hospital of San Diego in California, U.S. Dr. Burns has told Science News that she is using digital technology to help track the disease.

For the computer approach, Dr. Burns has been working with climate scientist Xavier Rodó. By looking at meteorological factors, computer modeling of atmospheric research introduced to this problem a new way of looking at Kawasaki disease. The modeling suggests that with the disease there are seasonal fluctuations of the outbreaks, with large numbers of children coming down with it at the same time. Here one possibility for exploration is coincidence with winds. For example, Rodó’s model found that in winter, strong winds from Asia blow across the islands of Japan from the northwest. Here when winds blew from this direction, Kawasaki disease cases in Japan spiked. Pairing climate science with Kawasaki Disease represents an area to build on for further study.

The outcomes to date have been reported to the journal PNAS, in a research paper titled “Tropospheric winds from northeastern China carry the etiologic agent of Kawasaki disease from its source to Japan.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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