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02 Mar 2018

Rheumatic heart disease is receiving serious political attention, as the Federal Government makes inroads into addressing and improving the health of Aboriginal Australians.

Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt has convened a roundtable in Darwin to look at charting a comprehensive roadmap to end rheumatic heart disease (RHD).

The roundtable brought together RHD and infectious diseases specialists, health professionals, Indigenous health advocates, philanthropists, service providers and government agencies.

“RHD and acute rheumatic fever take about 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives each year and many of these are young people,” Mr Wyatt said.

“The tragedy is compounded by the fact that RHD is almost entirely preventable, with many organisations, including governments, grappling strongly with pieces of the RHD elimination puzzle.

“Now, through this roadmap we are determined to tackle the whole challenge and eliminate this disease as a significant Indigenous public health problem.”

RHD is a long-term outcome of a condition called acute rheumatic fever (ARF), which typically occurs in childhood. As a result of ARF the affected person develops inflammation of the heart valves with resulting damage and malfunction. ARF typically precedes the RHD by decades.

RHD can be usually resolved if it is detected early, but people are being treated for the condition when it is too late.  RHD is most accurately diagnosed using ultrasound. 

Indigenous children and young adults in the Northern Territory are estimated to suffer from RHD at more than 100 times the rate of their non-Indigenous counterparts. The Kimberley is also an RHD hotspot, with two-thirds of all Western Australian Indigenous people suffering from RHD living in the region.

The Government has allocated $23.6 million under the Rheumatic Fever Strategy over the next four years. It is also working to address the underlying social and cultural determinants that contribute to RHD, including providing $5.4 billion to States and Territories to help them to provide remote housing, under a national agreement. While the Agreement is due to end on 30 June 2018, the Commonwealth has begun discussions with State and Territory Governments on future funding arrangements.

“While RHD affects children and young adults around the world, in Australia it is a sad reflection of the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children,” Mr Wyatt said.

“We know this is a disease of poverty, of overcrowding, of difficulty with access to health services.

“The roadmap will acknowledge there is no single silver bullet to eliminate RHD. We are now looking to tackle all the determinants – including environmental health, housing and education – as we work together to help strengthen these communities against this devastating disease.”

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon has repeatedly described the lack of effective action on RHD to date as a national failure; calling for an urgent coordinated approach.

At the launch of the AMA’s 2017 AMA Report Card on Indigenous Health, Dr Gannon said: “Governments must fund health care on the basis of need. There is no doubt whatsoever that funding and resourcing of Indigenous health does not meet the overall burden of illness.”

A copy of the AMA’s 2016 Indigenous Report Card, which focused specifically on RHD, can be found at: https://ama.com.au/article/2016-ama-report-card-indigenous-health-call-action-prevent-new-cases-rheumatic-heart-disease 

MEREDITH HORNE


Published: 02 Mar 2018