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Rates of acute rheumatic fever among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians continue to be among the highest in the world based on the available data, released in a report today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Rheumatic heart disease and acute rheumatic fever in Australia: 1996-2012, shows that while acute rheumatic fever is rare in most developed countries, rates among Indigenous Australians are high.

'Our report uses data on the incidence of acute rheumatic fever and prevalence of rheumatic heart disease from the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australian Rheumatic Heart Disease registers. The Northern Territory Rheumatic Heart Disease register has been in operation the longest, and is currently the strongest jurisdictional source of data available,' said AIHW spokesperson Dr Lynelle Moon.

The report shows that almost all cases of acute rheumatic fever recorded in the Northern Territory between 2005 and 2010 were for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (98%), with 58% of cases occurring in 5-14 year olds.

Rheumatic heart disease is a result of acute rheumatic fever, and manifests as permanent damage to the heart muscle or heart valves. In severe cases it can result in serious disability or even death.

'In the Northern Territory in 2010, the prevalence rate of rheumatic heart disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 26 times the rate for non-Indigenous people,' Dr Moon said.

'What is clear is that large inequalities exist between Indigenous and other Australians when it comes to acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are considerably more likely to be hospitalised with acute rheumatic fever or rheumatic heart disease, and to die from rheumatic heart disease.'

Between 2007-08 and 2009-10, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had hospitalisation rates for acute rheumatic fever/rheumatic heart disease that were more than 6 times those of other Australians, but were less likely to have heart valve surgery to repair damage resulting from rheumatic heart disease if hospitalised.

'The death rate from rheumatic heart disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 5 times that of non-Indigenous Australians between 2004 and 2007,' Dr Moon said.

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 20 March 2013

Further information: Dr Lynelle Moon, AIHW, tel. (02) 6244 1235, mob. 0414 899 826

Full publication: Rheumatic heart disease and acute rheumatic fever in Australia: 1996-2012