While general heart disease is often a product of smoking, poor diet or a lack of exercise, rheumatic heart disease usually occurs in impoverished living conditions, where health access is limited.
(Transcript from World News Radio)
Rheumatic heart disease is most commonly found in Third World countries.
But in Australia, there are relatively high rates of RHD in remote Aboriginal communities and in some refugee groups.
Efforts are being made to reduce the problem through better early detection programs.
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Kenya McAdam was eight when she went to the doctor with a sore throat.
Her mother asked the doctor to test for rheumatic fever, but was told all she needed was Panadol.
The sore throats continued for Kenya, who grew up in the remote Indigenous community of Halls Creek in Western Australia, but she was never tested for any disease.
Seven years later she returned to the doctor – this time crawling on hands and knees.
“I couldn’t even walk properly, it would hurt. And I couldn’t even breath properly. I was just coughing up tonnes of pink blood.”
Left untreated, the throat infections had damaged her heart.
Diagnosed with Rheumatic Heart Disease, Kenya had open-heart surgery when she was 15.
It’s a time she doesn’t like to think about.
“I don’t really want to remember it, because it was really heartbreaking to think that. I was pretty healthy and I was sporty – I was this happy girl and then I just went downhill.”
Kenya now lives 500 kilometres from home, closer to the medical services she will need every six months for the rest of her life.
If properly treated at the first sign of infection, her life could have been very different.
National Heart Foundation director of cardiovascular health Dr Robert Grenfell says Kenya’s scenario is common for children in Indigenous communities, and some migrant groups.
“Unfortunately those who are living in overcrowded housing conditions and suffering from conditions that most of us would regard as impoverished or disadvantaged groups. So remote and rural Aboriginal communities unfortunately are one of the largest groups that are affected by rheumatic heart disease in Australia. And also a number of recent arrivals, in particular the immigrants that have come from refugee centres and others.
Director of RHD Australia, Professor Bart Currie says early detection is getting better.
The federal government funds special health staff and education programs in remote areas of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Professor Currie hopes this will soon be extended to South Australia.
“For a few years now there has been a national coordination of this with Commonwealth money for the remote community programs. And we’re hoping that fairly soon we’ll be gettting money for South Australian health colleagues who are working, particularly for instance, in the APY lands, where there is a substantial number of Aboriginal kids with rheumatic heart disease.”
But Robert Grenfell from the National Heart Foundation says the best way to eliminate the disease in Australia is to eliminate poverty.
“A lot of this is to do with access to health services, but in the first instance, if we could get rid of poverty in this country and the ensuing problems that come from it, that would go a long way to removing rheumatic heart disease in this country.”