Sunday, January 04, 2009
OT: Clearing the air on Kawasaki Disease
My heart goes out to John Travolta and his family for the loss of their 16-year-old son, Jett. What a devastating nightmare to lose a child. Any parent who's faced a child's mortality can empathize, I'm sure.
The Travolta family blames Jett's childhood bout with Kawasaki disease. We won't know for sure what happened until the autopsy is complete. But I'd like to clear up a few misconceptions about KD, as it's called, in the meantime
Kawasaki disease is a full-body vasculitis, meaning that blood vessels all over the body become inflamed. That's why the whites of the eyes turn red, along with the the soles of the feet and palms of the hands and the tongue. The heart, of course, is vascular, and it, too, becomes inflamed and can suffer permanent damage. KD affects mainly babies and toddlers of Japanese descent, and is often not diagnosed quickly. Children can indeed wind up with scarred and damaged hearts.
My younger daughter, Lulu, had KD when she was 8 years old. Luckily, a pediatrician recognized and diagnosed it promptly. Lulu spent 5 days in the hospital on intravenous gamma globulin and months convalescing at home. Today, at 13, her heart is fine.
No one knows what causes KD--and believe me, people have speculated galore. The Travoltas have been convinced for years that Jett's KD was caused by carpet cleaners. That's one of the theories that's circulated about it. I don't buy it, partly because hey, we never clean our carpets. KD is statistically more common in the winter and early spring (Lulu came down with it in January); maybe there's a correlation because people clean their carpets more in winter. I wrote a piece on KD for the New York Times and talked to all the leading researchers on it. They don't buy the carpet cleaners theory, either. It's more likely to be related to Staphylococcus aureus (Staph A) or toxic shock syndrome.
There is absolutely no evidence that KD causes autism. Repeat: KD does not, to the best of our knowledge, cause autism.
Of course there's a lot we don't know. We don't know that Jett Travolta was autistic, and frankly, it's none of our business. But we do know that kids who have had KD do not typically wind up with seizure disorders or autism.
I'm thinking of the Travolta family in their grief and loss, and hoping that Jett's death doesn't add to the misconceptions around Kawasaki disease. Maybe this well-publicized incident will inspire some researchers to get on the stick. There's been very little research done on KD. How about it?