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What is Kawasaki disease?

Kawasaki disease is a children's illness, about 75% of people with it are under age 5.
Midsection Of Parent Examining Daughter Fever
A persistent fever is a symptom of Kawasaki disease.Christiane Bongertz / Getty Images

As of Thursday, May 7, NBC News has reported that at least 85 kids across the U.S. have experienced pediatric multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome, which may be linked to the coronavirus. Symptoms of this condition are similar to those of Kawasaki disease. While more research is being done to understand the connection between pediatric multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome and COVID-19, many are wondering what Kawasaki disease is, since the symptoms are so similar.

TODAY spoke to Shawn Logan, executive director of the Kawasaki Kids Foundation, an organization created to raise awareness of Kawasaki disease, to learn more about it.

What is Kawasaki disease?

Kawasaki disease is a children's illness that causes inflammation of blood vessels. According to the American Heart Association, it is the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children in developed countries. Kawasaki disease typically only affects children ages five and under, and the average age of infection is 2 years old. It is more common in boys than girls, and while it can affect older children and teenagers, it is fairly uncommon.

According to Logan, whose son had Kawasaki disease, it is crucial to recognize the symptoms early so it can be diagnosed and treated to save the child's heart.

What causes Kawasaki disease?

There is no clear, known cause of Kawasaki disease, but doctors know that it is not contagious or hereditary. Though, the American Heart Association notes that sometimes more than one child in a family can develop it, which may indicate a genetic predisposition for Kawasaki disease.

Kawasaki disease symptoms:

The main symptoms of Kawasaki disease are:

  • Persistent fever of 101 degrees or higher
  • Rash on back, chest and abdomen
  • Swollen, red hands and feet
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck
  • Strawberry tongue, or irritation and swelling of the mouth, lips and throat

Since there is no clear cause of Kawasaki, Logan encourages parents to be advocates for their child and take their kids to see a doctor if they are experiencing a persistent fever or any of these symptoms.

"Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to prevent coronary artery aneurysms or dilation," Dr. Pei-Ni Jone, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora told TODAY, via email. "Please contact your primary care physician if your child presents with high fever, red eyes, red lips, big lymph nodes and rash so that early recognition of the diagnosis can happen. Early treatment will prevent coronary artery dilation."

What is the treatment for Kawasaki disease?

Kawasaki disease is treatable with an infusion of gamma globulin, which is an immune protein. It's transmitted intravenously and can reduce inflammation and lower the risk of coronary artery issues.

The American Heart Association notes that it's typically treated in the hospital, and a child may need to stay for a few days up to a few weeks.

Are there long-term effects of having Kawasaki disease as a child?

"A patient with Kawasaki disease who has no coronary artery involvement at the initial presentation, will do well into adulthood as long as they eat healthy foods and exercise," Jone explained. "There have been studies that have shown these patients will have stiffer blood vessels so the recommendation is regular exercise."

Yet for children who experience coronary artery dilations and aneurysms, Jone noted they will need life long follow-up care with their cardiologists. Patients who have small- or moderate-size aneurysms will need aspirin therapy for life in addition to follow-up care with a cardiologist.

What is the connection between Kawasaki and COVID-19?

While the newly discovered pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome can mimic symptoms of inflammatory illnesses, such as Kawasaki disease, there is no proven link between it and the coronavirus.

In a statement from the Kawasaki Disease Foundation, Dr. Jane Burns, the director wrote: "We have long suspected that there may be different triggers for KD based on individual genetics. The emergence of this new problem suggests that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, may be a trigger for some children to develop KD. In children who are affected by this new syndrome, they develop a serious heart condition that requires care in the intensive care unit... There is no information to suggest that children who have had KD are at increased risk for complications of COVID-19 infection compared to the general population."

If your child is experiencing any symptoms of the coronavirus or Kawasaki disease, be sure to contact your doctor as soon as possible.