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Tony Ryall

12 February, 2013

Progress on efforts to prevent rheumatic fever

The Government is stepping up its efforts to reduce rheumatic fever – and there are early signs of progress, says Health Minister Tony Ryall. 

“Early data from hospitals suggest fewer patients are turning up with acute rheumatic fever.

“Provisional rheumatic fever hospitalisation data for 2012 shows a lower incidence rate than 2011. 

“In 2012 there were 169 initial hospitalisations of acute rheumatic fever (3.8 per 100,000) compared with 187 (4.2 per 100,000) in 2011.

“These are encouraging results but it’s still too early to confirm a decreasing trend. There’s much more profile around this third world disease than a few years ago.

“Rheumatic fever is a serious disease that starts with a simple sore throat – a Streptococcus A infection - and, untreated with antibiotics, can lead to permanent heart damage.

“The treatment is ten years of painful penicillin injections and/or possible heart surgery.”

The National-led Government’s $24 million Rheumatic Fever Prevention Programme is one of the Prime Minister's Better Public Service targets to support vulnerable children. It aims to reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever by two-thirds to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by June 2017.

Mr Ryall also says the combined Australian/New Zealand project to find a vaccine for rheumatic fever is a welcome development.

“This agreement between the two Prime Ministers shows just how seriously the National-led Government is taking the fight against rheumatic fever.

“An effective vaccine against Group A Streptococcus would be a major step forward in the long-term control of the disease.

“The two Governments will provide $3 million in matched funding over the next two years for scientists on both sides of the Tasman to collaboratively identify a potential vaccine for Group A Streptococcus that could then proceed to clinical trials.

“However there is considerable work yet to be done before we get to the point where it may be possible to provide a vaccine.”


Rheumatic fever is a complication of untreated Group A Streptococcus and is largely preventable. Yet it can develop into a life threatening heart disease if left untreated.

The disease affects Māori and Pacific children and youth disproportionately.

Preventing rheumatic fever was a government priority from 2001 but little had been done, and the incidence rate of the disease just kept climbing.

By the middle of this year around 50,000 children will be part of the Rheumatic Fever Prevention Programme.  They are in the most vulnerable local communities of eight areas – Northland, South Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Gisborne, Hawke's Bay and Porirua.

As well as sore throat swabbing and follow-up antibiotic treatment if needed, programmes are also working with local services to address other common health issues such as skin infections, healthy housing and insulation.

  • Tony Ryall
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