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Kawasaki Disease Treatable but Cause Remains a Mystery

By Dr. Adriana Tremoulet

Although Kawasaki disease (KD) is five times more common than childhood tuberculosis in San Diego County and the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children in the United States, many parents have never heard of it. That’s why it is so important to know the symptoms.

Children with KD have a sudden onset of fever and develop a rash, swelling of the hands and feet, bloodshot eyes, red lips and tongue, and swollen glands in the neck. The immediate effects of KD may not be serious but, in some cases, long-term complications including damage to the blood vessels in the heart may result.

KD affects children almost exclusively; most patients are under 5 years of age. The disease is named after a Japanese pediatrician who described this particular pattern of signs and symptoms in 1967. In the United States, the disease has been reported in all racial and ethnic groups but occurs most often among children of Asian-American and African-American background. In San Diego, 80 new KD cases are treated at Rady Children’s each year.

To date, the cause of KD remains a mystery. Most experts agree that children are born with a genetic pattern that makes them susceptible to KD. The illness is then triggered by exposure to an unknown agent (such as a virus or bacteria). There is no evidence that the disease is contagious.

A high dose of gamma globulin (a protein fraction of human blood) administered intravenously is the treatment of choice for patients with KD. This treatment is most effective in reducing inflammation and preventing coronary artery damage if it is started within the first 10 days of illness. High doses of aspirin are also given with gamma globulin during the acute phase of the illness until the fever subsides.

If your child exhibits the symptoms of KD, he or she should be evaluated by your child’s pediatrician. Your pediatrician can diagnose KD based on your child’s physical exam and by performing certain blood tests that show high levels of inflammation in the blood. There is no specific diagnostic test for KD. An ultrasound examination of the heart (echocardiogram) may be necessary to evaluate possible damage to the heart or blood vessels.

If your child has had KD or you would like to learn more about KD, please visit and consider attending the KD Parent Symposium that will be held at Rady Children’s at 9 a.m. on Nov. 17.

Dr. Adriana Tremoulet is the associate director of the UC San Diego/Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego Kawasaki Disease Research Center and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego. She can be reached at