As of Friday, 73 kids in New York state have been hospitalized with symptoms that mirror the rare, life-threatening inflammatory illness.
“This is every parent’s nightmare,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press briefing following the death of a 5-year-old New Yorker on Thursday.
State health officials alerted medical providers Wednesday of the potential association between the virus and Kawasaki disease — the majority of patients with the disease have tested positive for COVID-19 or COVID-fighting antibodies, according to a new state Health Department report released Wednesday.
It’s still too early to say for sure if the coronavirus cases have Kawasaki disease for sure — that’s why doctors have started calling it “Kawasaki-like,” says Dr. Leonard Krilov, chairman of pediatrics at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island, and a pediatric infectious disease specialist.
Krilov has been tracking Kawasaki disease in children since its emergence in the US in the late ’70s, and says the new link is concerning, but could tell us more about the mysterious coronavirus.
“It’s telling us something about this virus and how the body responds to it in different ages,” Krilov, who has treated patients with both COVID-19 and the Kawasaki-like illness, tells The Post. “Exactly what it’s telling us, we don’t know yet.”
Here’s everything doctors know so far about the rare but potentially fatal illness.
What is Kawasaki disease?
Kawasaki disease, a rare childhood illnesses, is a potentially fatal diagnosis that cause the walls of blood vessels in the body to become inflamed.
How is it caused?
Scientists aren’t sure what causes Kawasaki disease, which has only recently been associated with the coronavirus. It occurs most often in people of Asian and Pacific Island descent, and some research points to it being genetic.
“Even though we don’t know the cause, the fact that it happens after 5 or 6 years of age, it’s thought to be an infection people develop immunity to,” Krilov says.
What are Kawasaki disease symptoms?
Symptoms include a fever that lasts at least five days, a rash and “strawberry tongue” — or a swollen and bumpy tongue. Others include swollen hands and feet, bloodshot eyes and swollen glands in the neck.
What is strawberry tongue?
One of the symptoms of the disease is a swollen or bumpy tongue colloquially called strawberry tongue.
“The tongue turns almost a beefy red, and the taste buds stick through it,” Krilov says.
How are the Kawasaki symptoms different from the symptoms seen in the coronavirus patients?
In Krilov’s experience, there have been some differences between the typical Kawasaki patients and those who have the coronavirus and exhibit symptoms of the disease. Both have swollen lips and strawberry tongue, as well as a fever and rash. Patients with the coronavirus additionally have kidney inflammation, abdominal pain and diarrhea. These patients haven’t had as much of the redness in the hands and feet that typical Kawasaki patients have, Krilov says.
“[In Kawasaki patients], it looks almost like they’re wearing red stockings on their hands and feet,” Krilov says, “but it’s not clear if that happens in the COVID [patients] with the Kawasaki-like illness.”
More testing and observation needs to be conducted before doctors can prove a link, Krilov says.
“This newer cluster does seem to be related to COVID, but it’s not 100% nailed down yet,” Krilov says. “Not all the children who have had this have tested positive for COVID,” however they may have been exposed to someone in their family with it.
How is Kawasaki disease diagnosed?
There’s no test for it. Doctors have to rule out other similar diseases and factor in signs and symptoms.
Is Kawasaki disease contagious?
It’s not contagious, however the coronavirus is. With the new possible link between the two, it’s more important than ever for kids and their families to social distance, wear masks and wash their hands frequently, Krilov says.
Kawasaki disease treatment
Treatment includes either aspirin or an infusion of an immune protein called gamma globulin through a vein, which can lower the risk of coronary artery problems, Krilov says.
For coronavirus patients with the Kawasaki-like illness, the treatment shows promise. Krilov says he and his staff have treated one child with gamma globulin, and saw positive results right away.
“Whether it was a coincidence or not, within a few hours, he was back to normal,” Krilov says. “One case doesn’t tell you everything, but it’s possible that this could help modulate or tone down the immune response.”
Can adults get Kawasaki disease?
Children younger than 5 are the most at-risk. But older children and adults can also get it, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
What are the complications?
Complications from Kawasaki disease include heart complications such as coronary artery aneurysms.
“You can have children having heart attacks at a young age,” says Krilov. However, he adds that this is exceptionally rare, especially with treatment.