Rheumatic heart disease a serious problem for young Indigenous Australians

Rheumatic heart disease, a disease prevalent in developing countries, is a serious problem for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Rheumatic heart disease: all but forgotten in Australia except among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples shows that Indigenous Australians are 20 times more likely to die from acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease than other Australians.

The report includes data collected in 2002 from two rheumatic heart disease control programs set up in the Northern Territory, in the Top End and Central Australia respectively.

AIHW author Ms Bonnie Field says health inequalities are highlighted within the report, with Indigenous children aged 5-14 years of age accounting for over 50% of new cases of acute rheumatic fever in these regions. No cases were reported among other Australian children of the same age.

'Nationally in 2001-02, Indigenous people were six to eight times more likely to be hospitalised for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease,' Ms Field said.

'National hospital data also show that nearly 45% of Indigenous people receiving heart valve surgery for these diseases are less than 25 years of age, compared to just 4% under 25 for other Australians.'

Ms Field says the report shows that in the regions surveyed the incidence of acute rheumatic fever, which can lead to rheumatic heart disease if left untreated, is much higher than recently reported rates in other countries.

'Current estimates of acute rheumatic fever are 0.2-0.5 per 100,000 in developed countries, with a higher figure of around 100 per 100,000 among younger age groups of socially disadvantaged populations.

'In comparison, the incidence of acute rheumatic fever among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 5-14 years in the Top End is about 250 per 100,000 and in Central Australia about 350 per 100,000.'

Although the incidence in the Top End has remained stable over the last 15 years, the trend in Central Australia appears to be increasing, says Ms Field.

'Current data on acute rheumatic fever incidence are limited to the Top End and Central Australia, and may not be representative of all Indigenous communities in Australia. However the high rate of this disease in these regions and the apparent increases in Central Australia are a concern.

'Without more register-based data of similar quality it is very hard to extrapolate regional incidence and prevalence rates to a national scale. Nevertheless the information we have is certainly enough to indicate the seriousness of the problem among Indigenous Australians.'

26 August 2004


Further information: Bonnie Field, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1287 or mobile 0407 915 851.

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1032.