Wind Currents Behind Children’s Heart Disease

Kawasaki disease in Japan linked to environmental trigger in winds from agricultural regions in northeast China

Kawasaki disease, the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children worldwide, may be caused by fungal particles or toxins carried on wind currents from northeastern China to Japan, according to a study by an international team that included researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Noting that the timing of disease outbreaks coincided with certain wind patterns from Asia, the researchers modeled air currents and airborne particle transport on days with high Kawasaki disease incidence in Japan, using records dating to 1977. The results suggested that the disease peaked in many locations around Japan—in both epidemic and non-epidemic years—only when winds originated from a region in northeastern China with vast cereal croplands.

Further analysis found an incubation time of less than 24 hours between exposure and fever onset. This, combined with the evidence of widespread simultaneous occurrence of the disease in many cities around Japan, suggested that the source of the disease was exposure to an antigenic or toxic trigger, rather than an infectious agent requiring replication inside the human host.

Brent Williams, PhD, associate research scientist, and W. Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School, conducted genetic analysis of air samples obtained during Kawasaki disease season, when wind currents originate in the densely cultivated northeastern region of China. The dominant fungal particles were Candida species. This showed the potential for human disease in aerosols transported by wind currents, as Candida are the most common cause of fungal infections worldwide.

The researchers plan to collect more air samples during the high season for Kawasaki disease. They also plan to conduct further studies, to see if the microbes, antigens, or toxins in the aerosol samples elicit an immune response similar to that seen in Kawasaki disease patients.

Read more in the Mailman School’s news release.