There’s a strange disease affecting thousands of Japanese children and even some in the U.S. Though the cause isn’t yet know, scientists might be one step closer to pinpointing the source of Kawasaki disease, as a new study suggests whatever is causing it could be carried on wind from China.

Kawasaki disease causes vasculitis, or inflamed blood vessels and that can lead to serious heart issues. Symptoms include fever and unusual redness of the eyes, lips, tongue, palms and feet, which are signs of the inflamed blood vessels. According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease is not spread from person to person and most patients recover within a few weeks.

Some of the signs of inflamed blood vessels. (Image source: Dong Soo Kim/BioMed Central Ltd. via Wikimedia)

Some of the signs of inflamed blood vessels. (Image source: Dong Soo Kim/BioMed Central Ltd. via Wikimedia)

Previous research first drew the link between the high incidents of the disease in Japan and the United States and times when winds were pushing from Central Asia.  Moving forward with this idea, the researchers used computer models to figure out where air was coming from in Tokyo and other cities, according to Science magazine. They wrote that the movement of fungal species in the air also showed the potential for human diseases to be carried long distance in wind currents.

The study also suggests based on data that the disease has an incubation period of less than 24 hours after exposure.

“A fungal toxin could be pursued as a possible etiologic agent of [Kawasaki disease], consistent with an agricultural source, a short incubation time and synchronized outbreaks. Our study suggests that the causative agent of [Kawasaki disease] is a preformed toxin or environmental agent rather than an organism requiring replication,” the authors stated in the study abstract published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We propose a new paradigm whereby an idiosyncratic immune response, influenced by host genetics triggered by an environmental exposure carried on winds, results in the clinical syndrome known as acute [Kawasaki disease].”

“I think these authors have presented a dataset that is pretty conclusive that this is most likely a microbial toxin of some type,” microbiologist Dale Griffin with the U.S. Geological Survey, who was not involved with the research, told Science.

Others are skeptical of this possibility. Anne Rowley, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Northwestern University, called the study “very interesting” but said a windborne toxin like this would be unprecedented.