Clues emerge on possible cause of Kawasaki disease amid rising cases in young children

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Scientists now have some clues to what’s causing Kawasaki disease, a rare inflammatory disease that can affect very young children.

Doctors say it’s important to recognize the signs of this condition because local hospitals are seeing an uptick in cases.

Three-year-old Hannah came down with a fever in November. Her mom, Karen Ho, figured it was a mild illness.

“We all thought she had hand-foot-mouth. There was an outbreak at her preschool,” she said.

But Hanna’s fever persisted for five days, spiking to 104 degrees. Then, a rash and swollen feet.

“The next morning she woke up with red eyes and red lips,” said Ho. Her pediatrician recognized the classic signs.

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“I could see her demeanor change. She’s like we need to get labs right away. I really hope it’s not Kawasaki,” she said.

Kawasaki disease causes blood vessels that carry oxygen to the heart to swell and become inflamed. The condition mainly affects kids under 5.

“It has been the leading cause of acquired heart disease among children as opposed to congenital heart disease,” said Dr. Moshe Arditi with Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s.

Without prompt treatment, heart issues can last a lifetime. Although rare, Arditi said in the past four months, the hospital has seen a 50 percent uptick.

“Typically, we see 2 to 3 cases. And now we have already seen 6 cases.”

But why? The cause is a mystery, but new evidence suggests the source may be an infectious agent affecting kids genetically predisposed. During the pandemic, Arditti observed Kawasaki cases had dropped dramatically.

“Because of the masking and the social distancing, and all the measures that we took,” he said.

The treatment for Kawasaki disease is an intravenous immuno-globulin called IVIG. If it’s given early, patients usually recover completely.

For Hanna, the effect was immediate.

“She was running around the hospital, like playing in their playroom,” she said.

But in 20% of children, IVIG doesn’t work. Arditi’s team are investigating therapies to block inflammatory proteins preventing further blood vessel damage.

“We can really decrease the chances for the child to get lasting heart disease.”

The odds of getting Kawasaki Disease twice is about two percent. But in March, Hannah was diagnosed again. Prompt treatment worked just as well the second time. Her mom says know the signs and tell your doctor.

“You feel like something isn’t normal, like you just have to bring your kid in,” Ho said.

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