Cardiovascular disease, comprising mainly heart attack and stroke, is Australia's greatest health problem. Despite great improvements in death rates in recent decades, cardiovascular disease is still the major cause of death in Australia. Cardiovascular disease also places a heavy burden on society in terms of illness, disability and economic cost. However, there are serious gaps in our knowledge about cardiovascular disease and the groups it affects. This limits our capacity to develop and evaluate cost-effective and equitable strategies for community prevention and treatment. Major health agencies have been concerned about this situation for some time. In 1993 the Cardiovascular Disease Implementation Working Group was established by the Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council to consider information on the s'tate of knowledge and practice related to the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, and to develop a set of goals, targets and strategies based on this knowledge. This group has recommended the establishment of a national monitoring system for cardiovascular disease, its risk factors and management.

An integrated monitoring system would include death rates, disease incidence and prevalence, use of pharmaceuticals, rehabilitation, hospital and surgical care, prehospital and emergency care, risk factors and prevention. To help develop such a system, a series of reports are being prepared by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in collaboration with the WHO MONICA Collaborating Centre at the University of Newcastle and the National Heart Foundation of Australia. These reports draw together and document existing data on cardiovascular disease and identify areas which need development.

This report on risk factors for cardiovascular disease is the first in the series. It brings together the existing Australian data on the major cardiovascular disease risk factors and identifies some gaps and deficiencies in our current knowledge and measurement of these risk factors. It serves as both a benchmark report for the monitoring and surveillance of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and as a resource document on existing information.

Future reports in the series will address the areas of morbidity, mortality, medical care and costs, and include a discussion document which outlines a proposal for an integrated monitoring system.