Rheumatic fever research providing hope for eradication

There are hopes of eradicating rheumatic fever and heart disease with $3m for new research.

The devastating illness affects 180 vulnerable children each year and leaves many with life-long heart damage.

While it affects just a handful of Pākehā youth each year, the risk of infection is 50-times higher for Māori and 120-times higher for Pasifika children.

Cure Kids says it's a disease of poverty and inequity and is investing $3 million over three years in research to stomp rheumatic fever out.  

Dr Jacelyn Loh, a senior research fellow working in Auckland University's infection and immunity cluster, is working on a vaccine for Strep A which leads to rheumatic fever.

"So by preventing the initiating Strep A infection, we will be able to prevent the more serious downstream consequences of the acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease," Dr Loh said.

Other researchers are working on new treatments, including hydroxychloroquine. Starship Hospital Associate Professor Nigel Wilson says it's shown promise as a treatment for acute rheumatic fever.

"This is very exciting because it's 20 years since the last clinical trial with a medication to try to improve the inflammation of the heart valves in rheumatic fever," Wilson said.

Former Blues rugby player Matt Johnson was forced to retire this year after rheumatic heart disease led to a fifth open-heart surgery. He got rheumatic fever when he was 13, at 26 he has a mechanical valve but he says he's lucky to be alive.

He now wants to see an end to rheumatic fever in New Zealand.

"You don't want to go through long term health issues and prevent you from doing what you love."

Epidemiologist Michael Baker says it's a third world disease.