University of Otago researcher Dr Simon Horsburgh
highlights concerns over high rates of rheumatic fever
among some Maori and Pacific communities. Photo by Craig
School-based clinics are helping to counter "quite
disgraceful" levels of rheumatic fever in some parts of New
Zealand, University of Otago researcher Dr Simon Horsburgh
Dr Horsburgh was speaking at Otago University, in Dunedin, on
Thursday about research into major health care and medicine
access challenges facing people living in rural parts of the
He has been a co-investigator in a major study, led by Prof
Pauline Norris, of the Otago School of Pharmacy, some
findings from which were released last year.
These showed rural Maori were much less likely to receive
antibiotics despite needing them more because of far higher
rates of rheumatic fever.
Rheumatic fever starts with a sore throat, but can later
cause permanent heart damage. It results in about 180 deaths
in this country each year.
Maori in Tairawhiti, where the Otago study was carried out,
have extremely high rates of rheumatic fever. Heart damage
can be prevented among people in high-risk groups by taking
antibiotics for sore throats.
A recent Ministry of Health-funded report said acute
rheumatic fever had been "virtually eradicated from most
But rates in New Zealand had "failed to decrease since the
1980s and remain some of the highest reported in a developed
country," the report said.
Dr Horsburgh, a lecturer in preventive and social medicine,
highlighted problems in gaining access to medical care and
prescription medicines in remote parts of Tairawhiti, where
poverty and challenging roads added to problems.
The Government last year announced that a further $12 million
was being provided to boost the national campaign against
rheumatic fever, including in Tairawhiti.
Dr Horsburgh this week emphasised that the Otago study had
not contributed to that funding boost, but had highlighted
the need for more effective help to counter high rates of
Rural school clinics were being used to take swabs of
children with sore throats, and if Group A streptococcus
(GAS) - which could lead to rheumatic fever- was found,
antibiotic treatment was given.
It was too early to know what effect the school clinic
approach was having in Tairawhiti, but it was encouraging
that many cases of GAS were being detected and treated, he
Prof Norris said that "access to medicines remains a serious
problem for many people, especially in rural areas, and for
Maori in particular."