Rheumatic fever cases rare in Taranaki

The number of cases of rheumatic fever in Taranaki is well below the national average.

The Government wants to cut rheumatic fever rates by two-thirds by June 2017 and added a further $20m, in the Budget, to fight the illness - bringing the total investment to more than $65.3m over six years.

Last year there was just one case of rheumatic fever in the region, Taranaki District Health Board Medical Officer of Health Dr Jonathan Jarman said.

"Our rate per head of population is much lower than the national rate. Our notification rate last year was 0.9 cases per 100,000 people compared with the national notification rate of 4.8 per 100,000 people."

Statistics showed that the Taranaki rate has been stable for the last five years, he said.

"However our challenge is to get this lower."

Most cases in Taranaki occur in Maori school-aged children.

"Rheumatic fever is one of the most striking of all health inequalities in New Zealand. It has been called a shameful disease."

The disease is linked to poorer housing conditions, lots of people living in the same house, and lack of recognition and treatment of streptococcal throat infections, Jarman said.

Tens of millions of dollars are being spent on picking up sore throats - one of the first causes of rheumatic fever - in deprived communities.

"The initial disease is very unpleasant and most children spent several weeks in hospital. One of the main symptoms is aching joints. This goes away after a while."

The big problem however is that a proportion of these children also get permanent heart damage, he said. "We have an old saying about rheumatic fever. It licks the joints but bites the heart."

Rheumatic fever is caused by untreated streptococcal throat infections.

New Plymouth GP Dr Paul Riley said he has seen one case in the five years he has been in Taranaki.

"We have a slightly lower Maori population than places like South Auckland or Northland. In those areas you'd approach it differently." He will prescribe antibiotics when necessary, but not everybody needs them, he said.

"There is a flow chart to follow to help with decision."

Midlands Health Network medical director Damian Tomic said all community based clinicians throughout New Zealand need to understand and follow the national guidance that is available on the management of sore throats.

"Midlands Health Network are actively working with our general practices in Taranaki to raise the profile of this important issue."

Taranaki Daily News