Is Wind Spreading a Mysterious Disease Across the Pacific?

By Sarah Zhang | April 6, 2012 9:13 am

strawberry tongue
Strawberry tongue, a symptom of Kawasaki disease.

Scientists don’t know much about the cause of Kawasaki disease—a disease of blood vessel inflammation most commonly found in Japan—but they do know one thing: Japanese outbreaks  are highly correlated with winds from central Asia. When those same winds blow thousands of miles across the Pacific to Hawaii and California, Kawasaki disease ends up there too.

The disease affects generally children under the age of five. Blood vessels through the body become inflamed, leading to rashes, a characteristic “strawberry tongue,” and death in some untreated cases. Japanese pediatrician Tomisaku Kawasaki described the first case in 1960, and incidence of the mysterious disease have been rising ever since.

In the latest issue of NatureJennifer Fraser profiles scientists who are looking to the wind for answers about Kawasaki disease. There are a couple examples of windspread fungal spores, just as Aspergillus sydowii that follows dust storms from Africa to the Caribbean, but conditions up high are so extreme that wind had not been seriously considered capable of spreading disease across the Pacific:

Microbiologists have generally assumed that ultraviolet radiation and the near-cryogenic temperatures at high altitude will annihilate any infectious microbes before they can make it across an ocean. But maybe not, [pediatrician Jane Burns] says. “My background is molecular virology. When I preserve my viruses in the lab, what do I do? I desiccate them and freeze them at −80°C. Well, hello! Those are the conditions up in the troposphere.”

Here’s the thing though: we don’t know if a virus causes Kawasaki disease. It could be a bacterium or fungus or completely abiotic factor. Last March, scientists collected samples from Pacific winds, and researchers at Columbia are sequencing the heck out of genetic material from the samples in hopes of finding the disease agent. Fraser reports that they have a promising lead, but there’s a lot of work to be done before a pathogen is conclusively identified.

Image via Wikimedia Commons / Dong Soo Kim

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • Loren

    When bio material freezes slowly it creates crystal-structures that can puncture the cellular wall and destroy it. Viruses are different than that of bacteria, and may not be applicable to such a scenario.

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Jolene

    My daughter was very sick about two years ago, with Kawaski’s disease. She was very sick for about 15 days, before being treated at Children’s Hospital, we live in Minnesota. So this article is very interesting to me , that it may have come from the wind. They did not have too much to tell us about kawaski’s, but they did know how to treat it and she was better about a month later. It was very scary at the time, I just kept thinking where did she get this, and why?? She was five at the time and so sick, I would cry, not knowing how to help her or what to do. We got turned away by many doctors, telling us it was just a rash and to not worry. After the IVIG at childrens she shed completely, like a snake and her new skin was very delicate, they were like baby hands, red and soft. It would be great to have some answers to this strange disease.

  • Teresa

    It doesn’t make sence that Kawasaki’s Disease could make it accross the Pacific Ocean and all the way to Bryan, Ohio were my 3 year old became ill with it in 1995. At that time the only thing we had in common with the children in the hospital with Kawasaki’s was useing a commercial carpet cleaner and having cats that might have had fleas. It was a terrifying experience that still brings me to tears. We were lucky, our childrens pediatrician was a Japanese doctor and she knew immediatley when I described the high fever, sunken eyes, swelled tounge and rashes over the phone that my daughter had Kawasaki’s disease. She survived, but it left her with a lifetime of problems. I hope they find answers soon.

  • Lorane

    They should stop trying to find the spread and find the epicenter. Sure, finding where it spread is important, but the best way to stop it is at its source.

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