A vaccine for rheumatic fever is "closer than ever", but New Zealand should not let its world-leading prevention strategies slip, a visiting Australian researcher says.
Two, perhaps three, vaccines will be tested in humans for the first time in the next 12 months after more than a century of trying to crack a cure, Professor Jonathan Carapetis told The Dominion Post. He was confident that at least one vaccine would be proved safe and effective within five years.
While a vaccine was the "holy grail", other strategies had to be deployed to deal with poverty and poor living conditions - both of which are big contributors to children contracting the Third World disease in hot spots such as Porirua East, Flaxmere and Gisborne.
Prof Carapetis, of the Telethon Institute of Child Health Research in Perth, was in Wellington this week to speak at a Public Health Summer School symposium at Otago University.
About 80 leading international researchers and doctors discussed how to reduce high levels of rheumatic fever particularly among Maori, Pacific and Aboriginal Australians.
Probiotics - such as the New Zealand-developed BLIS K12 throat guard - were raised as a potential prevention method, but more work needed to be done on the effectiveness, Prof Carapetis said.
He applauded the Government for paying $24 million to help reach its ambitious target of reducing rheumatic fever rates by two-thirds in five years.
The Ministry of Health's campaign focuses on sore throat swabbing in schools to detect then treat streptococcus infections with antibiotics before they progress to rheumatic fever.
Otago's Professor Michael Baker said about 150 people contract rheumatic fever each year and about 140 people die from complications. "Of all the infectious diseases in New Zealand, it's one of the biggest killers. It's a very unfair disease."
Prof Baker said most New Zealanders had no risk of getting rheumatic fever, "but Maori and Pacific children living in relative poverty and crowded houses are vulnerable to infection. They're also vulnerable to other infections."
There was still a lack of understanding around the causes of the disease and why rates are higher in indigenous people, he said. "Poverty, household crowding, and poor access to primary healthcare services are likely to play a part in these ethnic differences, but there appear to be other unexplained factors contributing to disease risk."
In New Zealand, rates in Maori children are about 40 per 100,000 and in Pacific children about 80 per 100,000.
- The Dominion Post