A Windborne Clue

Deborah Kogan of New York says, at first, she thought her 4-year-old son Leo’s fever would pass. It had been on the rise for hours, and he was looking puffy. Kogan took Leo to the pediatrician. He thought it might be strep throat, but it wasn’t.

A few days later, Leo “woke up, and he looked as if he was one of the characters in The Nutty Professor. His face ballooned about twice its normal size.” She posted a photo of Leo on Facebook. That’s when the crowd-sourced diagnosis took shape.

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On Facebook, a cousin wrote, “Look, I really think you should check and make sure it’s not Kawasaki disease.” A pediatrician from the Bay Area posted, “I hope the doctors have ruled out Kawasaki disease.” And so it continued.

Kogan had never heard of the disease but didn’t need more warnings. She took him to the nearest hospital, where, indeed, he was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease.

Kawasaki disease was discovered by Japanese pediatrician Tomisaku Kawasaki in 1967. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Japanese Ministry of Health made a further inquiry. They realized that children were dying from the heart attacks that followed the disease, says Dr. Jane Burns of the University of California, San Diego.

A few years ago, Burns started to notice a pattern: The disease appeared to be seasonal. Japanese researchers noticed a similar pattern. Together, they worked with a group of climate scientists who started to analyze atmospheric data.

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What the climate researchers found was an association with the direction of wind circulating in the troposphere at heights of 3,000 meters, Burns says. When those wind currents blew in one direction, across Japan, then across the Pacific, to the West Coast and Hawaii, the number of U.S. cases increased. When the wind blew in the opposite direction, the number of cases fell.

The data were so overwhelming that Burns and her team thought it couldn’t be coincidental. If this theory about Kawasaki disease is true, it could open up a whole new understanding of how other human pathogens are spread. No human disease has ever been shown to cross an ocean by wind and still remain infectious.

Meanwhile, Leo Kogan recovered fairly quickly after being pumped with a blood product made up of antibodies, a process that his mother says was terrifying.

Leo is now a healthy 5-year-old. While Kawasaki disease is still rare, the number of cases both in the U.S. and Japan have been rising steadily each year.

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It's important that you start the process as soon as possible.
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