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Rheumatic fever rates continue to soar despite millions spent on prevention campaign

The Government’s $65 million spend on rheumatic fever prevention has made little impact on the alarmingly high rate of the disease among young New Zealanders, Labour’s Health spokesperson Annette King says.

Latest figures from ESR show there were 235 notified cases of acute rheumatic fever in the year to September 2014, up 75 on the previous twelve months.

“That equates to 5.3 cases per 100,000 people, almost five times the rate of meningococcal disease and an increase described by ESR as ‘statistically significant’.

“The Government has poured tens of millions of taxpayers’ money into various campaigns in an attempt to meet its ‘better public service’ target of reducing the incidence of rheumatic fever by two thirds by 2017, with its school throat-swabbing programme due to end this year.

“But rates of the disease have been rising for at least three years – as former Health Minister Tony Ryall himself said: ‘We are the only developed country in the world with levels of rheumatic fever you would see in the third world’.

“It is understood that at least one child a week whose heart has been badly damaged by rheumatic fever is operated on at Starship Hospital, and it is estimated more than 140 adults die from rheumatic heart disease in New Zealand every year.

“Good people are doing their best to stem the rising numbers of Kiwis contracting the disease, but the current regime is not enough. It acts as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

“Acute rheumatic fever is largely a disease of poverty, overcrowding, and healthcare inequality. Preventing it requires more than throat swabbing and publicity campaigns.

“It requires a health system that provides services that are accessible for all and a coordinated effort to address social factors that impact on health, such as housing.

“The causes of rheumatic fever are well known. They continue to be denied by the National Government because to accept those causes is to admit its failure to address them.”