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Profile: The man who discovered 'Kawasaki disease'

Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki (Mainichi)

With 50 years having passed since Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki published his first paper on "Kawasaki disease" in 1967, it is worth reviewing the eminent doctor's work over the past half-century or so.

Kawasaki's first association with the disease can be traced back to 1961. That year, the physician noticed a mysterious set of symptoms in a 4-year-old boy. His symptoms included prolonged high fever, a bright-red tongue and eyes, as well as a red-colored patchy rash across his entire body.

During his 11 years working as a pediatrician, Kawasaki had never seen this combination of symptoms before, and antibiotics proved to be ineffective in treating the boy's symptoms. The boy's fever went down after 2 weeks, however, and he was discharged from the hospital. Kawasaki consulted with other colleagues about the symptoms, but they were unable to reach a diagnosis. One year later, another child was brought into the hospital with the same symptoms, and Kawasaki became convinced that there was a "mystery illness" in existence.

In 1967, Kawasaki published a 44-page report of hospitalized patients in an academic journal, which was based on a diligent six-year observation of 50 patients' symptoms and treatment relating to the mystery illness. Kawasaki named the illness "acute febrile mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome" but the moniker "Kawasaki disease" stuck. "The original name was long. I never referred to it as 'Kawasaki disease' myself, but it came to be called that way."

Following Kawasaki's discovery, there was considerable debate concerning the disease in academic circles, but in 1979, Kawasaki disease made it into an international pediatric textbook, and obtained global recognition. He warns, "I wonder if doctors aren't neglecting the basics of clinical medicine, which is to observe patients thoroughly and analyze what they find."

With some cases of sudden death occurring, Kawasaki disease became a society-wide issue. However, with improved treatment methods, the mortality rate has dropped dramatically. Despite increased awareness though, the cause of the disease remains unknown and the number of patients in Japan with Kawasaki disease is increasing. Half a century on, it frustrates Kawasaki that the while the disease is believed to be triggered by infection, the direct cause is still unclear. Nevertheless, at the age of 92, he remains active and continues to support affected families at the nonprofit organization "Japan Kawasaki Disease Research Center."

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