UH Med Now
New Video: Hawaiʻi keiki over three times more susceptible to cat scratch disease, research by UH pediatric resident shows
Pictured: Feral cat at Kakaʻako Waterfront Park. Deborah Manog Dimaya photo.
By Tina Shelton, JABSOM Communications Director
“We think it is three and a half times more common here, and why that is, we think we have a higher incidence of the bacteria in our kitten and cat population in Hawaiʻi,” said Scarlett Johnson (JABSOM MD 2016), lead researcher and a Hawaiʻi Island native now completing her medical residency in the UH Pediatric Residency Program at Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women and Children.
Cat scratch disease is caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae, which is generally benign and doesn’t always trigger the disease. But sometimes–and it is still rare–the bacteria can cause Cat Scratch Fever, which can become very serious. At its worst, the disease can cause bone infections, encephalitis, which can lead to seizures or coma or even blindness.
The disease is rare and difficult to diagnose
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“Because there are a variety of tests and imaging that you can use, we’re hoping ultimately that we can give some sort of guidance to clinicians going forward, because it is very rare relative to other diseases that we see,” said Johnson.
People get cat scratch disease from cats, it is spread between cats by fleas. Kittens often have a higher level of the bacteria.
“So one way to hopefully prevent this and not get it, is to make sure you are trying to control the flea population especially with your cats. Maybe avoiding wild cats which oftentimes have more fleas,” said Johnson. Johnson added that she loves cats, and hopes people continue to adopt and care for them as pets, just making sure they get the flea treatment and care pets deserve for their own health, too. The aim of her research is to make the diagnosis and treatment of the disease in humans faster.
Johnson worked closely with Jessica Kosut MD, JABSOM Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Pediatrics Division Chief at Kapiʻolani Medical Center, the training hospital partner for Pediatrics at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine. Johnson also was advised during her research by Natascha Ching, MD (JABSOM MD 1997), a Hawaiʻi pediatric infectious disease specialist at Kapiʻolani. Dr. Johnson presented her findings at the 2018 JABSOM Biomedical and Health Disparities Research Symposium.