Kawasaki disease afflicts about 12,000 children per year in Japan, and while researchers have not been able to find a cause, they might be one step closer to pinpointing the source of the mysterious illness.
A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that Kawasaki disease may be caused by toxins floating on seasonal winds from farmland in northeastern China.
The rare condition, also known as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome, can also be found in South Korea and the U.S. and affects children under the age of five.
The disease causes rash, high fever, and swollen and peeled skin on the hands and feet. Left untreated it can cause inflammation of blood vessels and, in some cases, fatal heart disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease is not spread from one child to another and most patients usually recover within a few weeks.
Previous research suggested that large cases of the disease coincide with prevailing winds from Central Asia, Science Magazine reported.
A team led by mathematical ecologist Xavier Rodó of the Catalan Institute for Climate Sciences in Barcelona, Spain, studied outbreaks of Kawasaki disease in Japan from 1970 to 2010. Using computer models to pinpoint where air was coming from in Tokyo and other cities, researchers narrowed the source of the disease to the same region in northeastern China.
The air usually took two days to reach Japan, where children became sick half a day later, according to the study in PNAS.
Researchers also suggest that Kawasaki is not an infectious disease because of the quick incubation period of less than 24 hours, and children would be unlikely to come down with symptoms on the same days.
When sampling the air during flights in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds, experts found species of the fungus Candida, which is known to cause several common human infections and causes symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease in mice. However, scientists are not sure if this fungus is the cause of the problem.