Govt to spend $12 million to try and combat rheumatic fever

1:30 pm on 18 May 2019

The government will spend $12 million in an effort to combat rheumatic fever.

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Photo: 123rf

Announced by Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa in South Auckland this morning, the funding targets the high rates of the illness among Māori and Pacific communities.

Rheumatic fever is an auto-immune disease that is triggered by a Strep A infection, frequently a sore throat but not always. The illness can sometimes progress to the stage where the heart is damaged.

Pacific people make up 57 percent of the country's rheumatic fever cases, while Māori make up 37 percent.

"The latest data for the 2018 calendar year suggests the rates of rheumatic fever in Pacific people are increasing, which is a serious concern," Ms Salesa said in a statement.

This year's Budget - which the government calls the Wellbeing Budget - will fund $12m to support programmes to reduce the illness among Māori and Pacific communities.

"We've focused this initiative on the Auckland region because two-thirds of rheumatic fever cases occur there, mainly in South Auckland.

"Targeted and tailored initiatives are shown to be more effective for improving Māori and Pacific health outcomes and we are doing more to support this approach."

Ms Salesa said the initiatives could include free school-based health clinics in disadvantaged communities.

"To have the greatest chance of success, it is crucial that initiatives and solutions are community-led and whānau-driven. The Ministry of Health will work closely with the Auckland region district health boards and key Māori and Pacific providers to achieve this."

Consultant paediatrician at Counties Manukau District Health Board, Dr Teuila Percival, has worked in South Auckland for decades and said rheumatic fever was an every day occurrence.

"We had last year 77 new cases of rheumatic fever admitted in Auckland and 50 of those were in South Auckland so the great bulk of rheumatic fever burden is here in my patch at Middlemore.

"I think when you say 77 new cases a year it doesn't sound like much, but if a child has mild rheumatic fever with mild heart disease they might be in hospital for two weeks, and then they have an intramuscular penicillin injection every 28 days until they turn 21."

She said those with serious cases of the disease could be in hospital for two months and require heart surgery, which could limit their life and their life expectancy.

"We know that rheumatic heart disease in adults produces probably 200 premature deaths a year, so it's significant."

Dr Percival said the funding was wonderful news for children and families, and said it was heartening to hear it would be led by the Māori and Pacific community.

"So often I see programmes where, to be frank, the funders or the providers produce the cookie and then ask the Māori and Pacific community to come and stick on the chocolate chips afterwards and we don't want that. We don't want that this time, we want a real community led, really important co-design process."

She said poor housing and overcrowding was a consistent theme with rheumatic fever cases and a community approach was needed to tackle the disease.

The Minister for Whanau Ora, Peeni Henare said the whanau ora, holistic approach would play a key part.

"We know that poverty and poor housing allow diseases like rheumatic fever to flourish so we must also address the causes of the disease and not just the symptoms. It's in that vein I implore all of us not to look at this particular initiative in isolation but across all of the work the government is doing in this space. That is why the collaborative approach is important.

"The innovative approach of Whanau Ora is crucial to ensure that rheumatic fever and it's causes are addressed across the entire health and social sector. We need our government health and social agencies to work together with Whanau Ora commissioning agencies, community, and families to reduce rheumatic fever."

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