Mysterious disease blows in from China

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A potential big step forward in discovering the cause of a childhood heart disease so mysterious that it was referred to as GOK—short for "God only knows"—for the decade after its 1961 identification: Scientists now believe that the agent that causes Kawasaki disease, eventually named for the Japanese doctor behind its discovery, is spread from northeastern China by the wind.

National Geographic reports that researchers began studying the disease records and wind patterns of Japan about a decade ago; that country sees the highest incidence of the disease, with roughly one out of 150 youngsters contracting it.

What they found: The disease struck the most children about 2.5 days after wind from the heavily-agricultural Northeast China Plain reached them, and the infection peak subsided once the wind shifted direction, Science reports.

Hawaii and Southern California see instances of the disease, too; as many as 4,000 cases occur annually in the US. But the disease—which causes young children's arteries to become inflamed and, if left untreated, can cause permanent heart disease or even death—is on the rise, with more cases being reported in Australia and Southeast Asia, Scientific American reports.

What's still unknown is which airborne agent causes it, though the researchers did note in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences "the unexpected finding of the Candida species," a type of fungus, "as the dominant fungus from aloft samples (54% of all fungal strains)." Study co-author Jane Burns says, "The data suggest that people are doing something new [since World War II] in northeastern China. Could there be some agricultural practice or crop or activity that is new since the 1960s? We need to figure out what the activity or condition is that creates these aerosols carried by the winds." (Click to read about a mystery disease that strikes one family on the planet.)

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