Tackling deadly disease earns researchers Eureka Prize

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Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow, Associate Professor Andrew Steer, and his scabies research team have won the 2017 Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research. The team was recognised for its important research into controlling scabies and related bacterial skin sores that are linked to acute rheumatic fever, which can cause the potentially deadly rheumatic heart disease.

Deadly rheumatic heart disease has almost halved worldwide, but the condition persists in areas of Australia where its prevalence is on par with some of the world’s poorest regions, according to a Heart Foundation researcher and Eureka Prize winner.

Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow, Associate Professor Andrew Steer, and his scabies research team won the 2017 Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research.

Two landmark studies by the team have shown that mass administration of the oral drug ivermectin is highly effective in controlling scabies and related bacterial skin sores that are linked to acute rheumatic fever (ARF). ARF can cause the potentially deadly rheumatic heart disease (RHD).

Associate Professor Andrew Steer said RHD is still common in developing countries in South Asia, the Pacific islands and sub-Saharan Africa – and in Indigenous communities in Australia. Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory have a rheumatic heart disease death rate 55 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians.

“Australia is a high-income country with a low rate of rheumatic heart disease, but there are pockets of disadvantaged Indigenous communities where the battle is far from over,” he said.

“It is not acceptable, and I hope that my focus on developing group A streptococcal vaccines to treat both skin infections and sore throats can help prevent ARF globally and at home.”

An article co-authored by Associate Professor Steer and published in this month’s New England Journal of Medicine reports that deaths from rheumatic heart disease per 100,000 people almost halved across the world between 1990 and 2015.

The article, Global, Regional and National Burden of Rheumatic Heart Disease 1990-2015, reports that global age-standardized mortality from rheumatic heart disease fell from 9.2 deaths per 100,000 people to 4.8 deaths per 100,000 people – a drop of 47.8 per cent.

Rheumatic heart disease is a chronic disease of the heart valves that begins in childhood with infection by a bacterium called group A streptococcus.

In Indigenous Australian communities and in tropical areas, the most common cause is skin infection linked to scabies, an infestation caused by a tiny mite.

Funded by a Heart Foundation fellowship and Innovation Award, Associate Professor Steer is building a world-leading research program on the prevention of ARF and RHD.

“Our research has the potential to save lives and reduce sickness from a disease that has global significance,” Associate Professor Steer said.

Heart Foundation National CEO Adjunct Professor John Kelly said the Heart Foundation, the largest non-government funder of heart disease research in Australia, is proud to invest in research to improve the heart health of all Australians.

“Thanks to the help of our generous donors, the Heart Foundation has invested $575 million (in today's value) in cardiovascular research since 1962,” he said.

“We are especially proud to be supporting emerging leaders such as Associate Professor Andrew Steer.”

Professor Kelly congratulated the Australian Government on renewing its National Rheumatic Fever Strategy for four years earlier this year, committing $18.8 million to prevent and manage ARF and RHD.

“We are delighted that the government not only re-committed to funding for the Rheumatic Fever Strategy, but actually strengthened it. Eliminating RHD is an important step in reducing – and eventually removing – the overall mortality and health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” he said.

“We encourage the government to consider a longer-term commitment to eliminating RHD as a public health problem confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

The Eureka Prizes will be announced at an award dinner at Sydney Town Hall, 483 George St, Sydney, on Wednesday 30 August.

For interviews or a high-resolution image, please contact: Liselotte Geary, Heart Foundation Senior National Media Adviser, 0411 310 997

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