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What is acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease?

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What is acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is a serious disease that causes damage to your heart valves.

Key takeaways
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Maori and Pacific Islander peoples are at high risk of acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.
  • It is important to get your sore throat or skin infection checked by your doctor so a Strep A infection can be treated before acute rheumatic fever  develops.
  • Acute rheumatic fever can cause inflammation of the heart, which can progress to rheumatic heart disease causing heart failure, disability and death.  

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Maori and Pacific Islander peoples are at high risk of acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.

Young people aged five to 15 years are most often affected. 

What is acute rheumatic fever?

Germs called group A Streptococcus (also known as Strep A) can cause infections in the throat or skin (sores). For some people the body’s immune system gets confused; as well as fighting the Strep A germs, the immune system fights specific areas of the body causing inflammation. This causes an illness called acute rheumatic fever (also known as ARF).

A chart of the symptoms of Acute Rheumatic Fever (ARF).

You may experience few symptoms, or a combination, and these symptoms do not all occur together.

See your doctor or healthcare professional if you experience ANY of these symptoms. 

What is rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is damage to one or more heart valves following acute rheumatic fever. There are four valves in the heart which open and close to keep blood flowing in one direction. If a valve is damaged, it might not open or close properly, meaning some blood may flow backwards or blood flow could be blocked.

Are acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease preventable?

Acute rheumatic fever can be prevented:

  • Sore throats and skin scores (which could be Strep A infections) should be treated with antibiotic medicine as soon as possible.
  • Antibiotic medicine is given as one injection or as tablets for a few days. It is very important to finish all tablets.

Rheumatic heart disease can be prevented:

  • People who have had acute rheumatic fever once may get it again, and this increases the risk of rheumatic heart disease.
  • Antibiotic medicine is usually given as an injection every 4 weeks for many years to stop acute rheumatic fever coming back.
  • Future sore throats and skin sores should be treated as soon as possible.
  • Future symptoms of acute rheumatic fever should be checked by a doctor or other health professional as soon as possible.

Rheumatic Heart Disease Australia (RHDAustralia)  

The Heart Foundation supports the work RHD Australia led in the prevention, diagnosis and management of acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. This includes ensuring the ARF and RHD Australia guidelines are reviewed and maintained on a regular basis.

For more information visit the RHDAustralia website.

Watch Video:

Take Heart Films: learn more about preventing acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. 

Michael’s Story: watch the story of a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy named Michael and his Aunty Mary to learn what to do if your child or family member has an episode of acute rheumatic fever.   

High risk people who have sore throats and skin scores should see a doctor or health professional so that Strep A infections can be treated before acute rheumatic fever develops.

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Last updated02 July 2021