Every year there are nearly 470,000 new cases of rheumatic fever across the globe. Approximately 305,000 people die every year from rheumatic heart disease, which rises from rheumatic fever. The U.S. and other developed countries have been able to provide access to medicine to prevent and treat rheumatic fever. However, many people living around the world don’t have access to the medicine they need. This leaves them and their children vulnerable to rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. Here are five facts about rheumatic fever and how it affects communities across the globe.
5 Facts About Rheumatic Fever
- Poorly treated streptococcal infections can cause rheumatic fever. Streptococcal infections come from a bacteria called Group A Streptococcus (group A strep). These infections can cause strep throat, scarlet fever, streptococcal toxic shock syndrome and several other diseases. Doctors can easily treat strep throat or scarlet fever with simple antibiotics. Complications from rheumatic fever, however, are more difficult to treat. When the body starts to fight against itself after many strep infections, heart valves and other tissues can become scarred and inflamed. This is what rheumatic fever is. Antibiotics are not widely available in all parts of the world. In certain areas of Africa and Asia, there are no doctors to diagnose and treat strep throat and scarlet fever. Consequently, this is where rheumatic fever is most common.
- Rheumatic fever can lead to rheumatic heart disease. Rheumatic heart disease happens when rheumatic fever leaves permanent scarring on the heart valves. This can narrow the valves or cause leaking in the valves. When the valves don’t work properly, the heart has a harder time pumping blood to the rest of the body. This eventually leads to heart failure and death. Rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease are fairly uncommon in developed countries like the U.S., but rheumatic fever is the number one source of heart disease in children and young adults in underdeveloped countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
- Rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease plague indigenous Australian communities. These diseases disproportionately affect indigenous Australians, including communities of Torres Strait islanders and the Māori people. These communities report some of the highest numbers of cases in the entire world. In 2018, indigenous Australian communities reported 59 cases of rheumatic fever for every 100,000 people. Non-indigenous Australian communities reported less than one case for every 100,000 people. About 94% of rheumatic fever cases in Australia occur in indigenous communities. High rates can decrease through access to healthcare, reduced overcrowding and better living conditions.
- Most victims are children anywhere from five to 15 years old. As most strep infections affect children, rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease also primarily affect children. Children have naturally weaker immune systems because of their lack of exposure to different sicknesses, so strep infections that are easier for adults to fight off are more difficult for children to overcome. Repeated and untreated strep infections increase the risk of rheumatic fever occurring. Rheumatic heart disease is the most common type of heart disease in children.
- RHD Action is fighting back against rheumatic heart disease. The RHD Action movement is a united force of three organizations intent on ending rheumatic fever and thus rheumatic heart disease. The organizations that comprise RHD Action are the World Heart Federation, Reach and the Medtronic Foundation. Together, these groups have raised awareness about the importance of diagnosing and treating strep infections to prevent complications from arising. RHD Action’s efforts have reached refugee camps in Uganda and areas of Brazil, among many others. RHD Action provides resources for families of children that have rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. It also educates those living in developed countries on the importance of access to medicine and quality care.
These five facts about rheumatic fever highlight that through widespread access to quality healthcare and overall better living conditions, communities can stop the spread. This will help save children the pain of replacing heart valves, blood clots, severe joint pain and other effects of rheumatic heart disease.
While doctors currently have no cure for rheumatic heart disease or the complications that come from rheumatic fever, the preventative treatments are plenty. Right now, there may be 470,000 new cases of rheumatic fever every year, but that can change with education, healthcare and access to a better quality of life.
– Holly Dorman