Prof John Tagg with his Blis K12 Throat Guard Daily
probiotics. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
A childhood encounter with rheumatic fever was to play a
pivotal part in defining Prof John Tagg's career.
Prof Tagg, the founding scientist of Dunedin company Blis
Technologies, has dedicated much of his life to exploring
ways to fight the disease.
''It pretty much programmed my life thereafter,'' the
University of Otago microbiologist said yesterday.
Prof Tagg discovered the Blis K12 probiotic bacteria nearly
20 years ago.
It helped support the body's natural defence against throat
and ear infections and was effective in the prevention of
streptococcal throat infections, which could lead to
Blis Technologies has now partnered with the Eastern Bay of
Plenty Primary Health Alliance and the Kawerau rheumatic
fever prevention programme, donating 200 bottles of Blis K12
Throat Guard Daily probiotics to aid children and families in
It was ''not absolutely clear'' why New Zealand had such a
''dire'' problem when elsewhere in the developed world, like
Europe, the disease had almost disappeared, Prof Tagg said.
''In New Zealand, it's bad and doesn't seem to be getting any
It had been linked to overcrowding and there might be some
It was hard to pinpoint why it was a particular concern in
Maori and Pacific Island ethnicities, where there was a big
disparity with the number of cases, compared to European
The Government realised it was a significant problem and had
made it a priority to address it, he said.
Growing up in Melbourne, Prof Tagg was 12 when he was
affected by the disease.
Thankfully, it did not affect his heart, he said.
His mentor, Lewis Wannamaker, from the United States, who was
world-renowned for his rheumatic fever research, commented it
was a disease ''that licks the joints but bites the heart''.
Prof Tagg remembered how it affected his own joints, and
recalled his knees and elbows, in particular, aching and how
those aches would ''flit from joint to joint''.
As a consequence, he was required to take penicillin daily
and, by the time he started studying at university in
Melbourne, he was ''really fed up with it''.
Awareness of the potential of Blis probiotics came when
members of the Eastern Bay of Plenty rheumatic fever sector
attended a lecture by Prof Tagg earlier this year.
Kawerau, a town in the region, has a high instance of
About 1580 children were monitored each week, about 1300
swabs were taken every school term and, on average, 13% of
the swabs returned a Group A streptococcus (GAS) positive
result. Rheumatic fever could occur after a strep throat
infection caused by a GAS bacterium.
Most strep throat infections got better and did not lead to
However, in a small number of people, an untreated strep
throat developed into rheumatic fever, where heart, joints,
brain and skin could sometimes be damaged.
Prof Tagg said his philosophy was ''prevention is better than
It was better to stop a sore throat from occurring, rather
than waiting for it do develop and then treating it.
• There were 171 cases of acute rheumatic fever, or 3.9 cases
per 100,000 people, diagnosed in New Zealand in 2012, the
Ministry of Health's website showed.