Young Parents

When the whites of baby's eyes turn red

What is Kawasaki disease? That was one mum's reaction when her baby came down with this serious but little-known illness. She shares her story with Eveline Gan

When one of her twins came down with a sudden high fever, Nathalie Yan thought it was just a regular virus infection.

But paracetamol and antibiotics did not help.

"The temperature continued to climb above 39 deg C," Ms Yan recalled.

"Instinctively, I felt that something wasn't right and asked for my baby to be hospitalised."


PHOTOGRAPHY: VERNON WONG, ART DIRECTION: LOY SZE JIN

Her decision not to wait out the fever saved four-month-old Elisabeth's life.

By the third day, the whites of the baby's eyes and her lips had turned frighteningly scarlet.

She also developed rashes on her genitals and had diarrhoea.

The doctors told Ms Yan the bad news - her baby had Kawasaki disease.

"My first reaction was, 'What's that?' I had never heard of it," said Ms Yan, 36, a first-time mum who works as a human resources manager.

She found out enough from the Internet for panic to kick in.

The serious childhood illness, which affects mainly kids under the age of five, causes small- and medium-sized blood vessels in the body to become inflamed.

According to Elisabeth's doctor, the condition makes one feel like the body is "on fire".

Ms Yan said: "That was probably how my baby felt when she was sick. She stopped eating, cried a lot and was extremely irritable."

As she struggled to relieve Elisabeth's discomfort, Ms Yan's mind reeled from the possibility that the disease might also cause long-term health issues such as heart problems - or worse, death - if not treated in time.

She learnt that young babies, particularly those under six months old, have a higher chance of developing heart complications from Kawasaki disease.

TREATED IN TIME

The serious childhood illness, which affects mainly kids under the age of five, causes small- and medium-sized blood vessels in the body to become inflamed. According to the doctor, the condition makes one feel like the body is "on fire".

KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) sees about 120 to 150 new cases of this illness each year, with nine in 10 under the age of five.

Of this group, 40 per cent are babies under the age of one.

Studies show that when left untreated, one in four children with Kawasaki disease develops coronary aneurysms, said Associate Professor Tan Teng Hong, head and senior consultant at cardiology service, department of paediatric subspecialities at KKH.

A coronary aneurysm, which happens when part of the blood vessel of the heart enlarges abnormally, is dangerous because it can cause heart attacks and other serious heart complications.

With timely treatment, the risk drops to about 5 per cent and most children make a full recovery, said Prof Tan.

  • Alert the doctor

  • Viral fever in children typically lasts three to four days.

    Associate Professor Tan Teng Hong from KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) said you should alert the doctor if your child shows some or all of these symptoms:

    • A persistent fever (above 38.5 deg C) that lasts longer than four to five days, especially one that does not respond to medication.

    • Red eyes.

    • Cracked lips and swollen tongue (often described as "strawberry tongue").

    • Skin rash.

    • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

    •Swelling and peeling of skin on the hands and feet. If your child has Kawasaki disease, join the Kawasaki Disease Support Group Singapore. Go to www.fb.com/ KawasakiDiseaseSupport- GroupSingapore.

Although Elisabeth, now aged three, was well enough to be discharged after her fever subsided, she continued to be cranky and irritable for weeks after.

The five-day hospital stay, during which she underwent a barrage of tests and had to be put on a drip, was so traumatic that she became very insecure and clingy.

"Until today, seeing the doctor scares her. Whenever she realises we're heading towards the clinic, she'd turn and run away," said Ms Yan.

It took two to three months before Elisabeth's appetite returned to normal.

Ms Yan said: "It was a particularly difficult period for us as our immediate families were not in Singapore to lend us support. There was also very little information online about the disease back then."

She said she was fortunate to have stumbled upon a local Facebook page set up by a woman whose child had the disease.

Ms Yan got in touch with her through social media. "It was very comforting to speak to another mum who had been through a similar experience."

With a few other parents, they have since formed a local support group to raise awareness and lend support by telephone or e-mail to families affected by the disease.

HEART DISEASE WORRIES

At KKH, children who have had Kawasaki disease without heart complications undergo two to three follow-up ultrasound heart scans.

If the results are found to be normal, regular heart scans are not necessary, said Prof Tan.

Elisabeth has been given the all-clear by her doctors. Still, Ms Yan worries about her daughter's future health.

Prof Tan said: "At the moment, the studies available are unable to confirm if children who have had Kawasaki disease with no heart complications face a higher risk of getting heart disease later in life."

Ms Yan gets nervous every time her twins come down with a high fever.

She said: "There's a chance that it might come back. If it does, the risk of Elisabeth getting heart problems might be higher. The disease could be genetic, so we are extra careful with her younger twin too."

Ms Yan advises parents to be persistent in seeking answers for their children's unexplained high fevers, especially if they do not seem to get better with medication.

"One couple, who is part of our support group, lost their child to Kawasaki disease this year. It's heartbreaking," she said.

"My child is lucky that her condition was caught in time and that she reacted well to treatment.

"Having gone through this, we hope that other parents know what to look out for because when the disease is treated early, the chance of recovery is high."

This article first appeared in Young Parents magazine. Young Parents, published by SPH Magazines, is available in both digital and print formats. Go to www.youngparents.com.sg to subscribe and for more parenting stories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'When the whites of baby's eyes turn red'. Print Edition | Subscribe