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Health Officials Warn Parents, Doctors Of Potentially Deadly Kawasaki Disease

A red rash, as shown on this child's back in this undated photo, is a symptom...

Credit: Kawasaki Research Foundation

Above: A red rash, as shown on this child's back in this undated photo, is a symptom of Kawasaki disease.

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San Diego County health officials have issued an advisory, warning doctors and parents to be on the lookout for Kawasaki disease. At least 16 children in the region have been diagnosed with the potentially deadly illness since January.

“And more cases may occur through March because of the wet, cool weather we’ve been experiencing lately,” the advisory stated.

Kawasaki disease generally affects children under the age of 5. Symptoms start with a fever and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

“And then everything turns red,” said Jane Burns, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego and director of the Kawasaki Disease Research Center, a joint collaboration of doctors, climate scientists, molecular biologists and geneticists with UC San Diego, Rady Children's Hospital and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Red rash, bloodshot eyes, red hands and feet,” said Burns during an interview with KPBS in November when another cluster of the disease surfaced.

“If it’s not treated, eventually it will go away for a period of weeks,” Burns said. “But one in four children will be left with permanent, potentially devastating, fatal damage to their heart.”

“It’s a very treatable disease if we can get to the children within the first week or so after onset of fever,” she added.


Kawasaki Disease Symptoms

Fever

Rash

Swollen hands and feet

Bloodshot eyes

Swollen lymph nodes in neck

Red mouth, lips, throat

Source: Kawasaki Disease Research Center

While the exact cause of the disease remains unclear, Burns said it is believed to be influenced by unusual weather patterns, possibly connected to climate change.

“Children are affected by something they breathe in,” Burns said. “There are ideas that the increase in ocean surface temperature may be increasing the intensity of trans-Pacific winds,” Burns explained. "And if those winds are carrying something that’s carrying Kawasaki disease, then yes, it’s possible that climate change is related to the increased numbers of cases that we’re seeing.”

The explanation would explain why children living along the coast were predominantly impacted, Burns said. But now, the epicenter has shifted eastward to places such as Escondido, Vista and Temecula.

“The reason for the shift in our patient population to be more common now in the inland areas is a complete mystery,” Burns said.

Children of all races and ethnicities are susceptible, but Asian children are at an increased risk, she said.

“And that’s because there is a genetic predisposition to this disease, and Asian children are more likely to carry the correct genetic pattern to make them susceptible,” Burns said.

Burns started studying the disease 35 years ago after one of her patients died, she said.

“After the autopsy, we met with the family and they brought in a paper bag of small bills they had gone door-to-door collecting,” Burns recalled, with tears in her eyes. “And they asked if I would do research on this disease.”

Progress has been made, she said, but her research for answers continues. Approximately 6,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year. But the number of cases in San Diego has doubled in the last two decades, Burns said.

For more information about the disease, visit the Kawasaki Disease Research Center website.

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