World Health Organization makes Rheumatic heart disease a global health priority

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Adj. Prof. John Kelly

National Heart Foundation CEO In 2016, John Kelly returned to the heart health field after starting his career as a cardiac nurse. Most recently he spent four years as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia and spent nine years on The Smith Family Board.

Having been instrumental in developing a national Rheumatic Fever Strategy in Australia, the National Heart Foundation welcomes the World Health Organization’s recent recognition of Rheumatic Heart Disease as a major global health priority.

The WHO Executive Board this month recommended a resolution on 'Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease' for adoption at the World Health Assembly in May next year.

Once adopted in May 2018, this resolution will stand as the first global commitment on RHD, which affects 33 million people around the world. Endorsed by governments around the world, it will be a high-level global policy that demands national and international decision-makers to prioritise and fund RHD prevention and control.

Australia and the National Heart Foundation will be well placed to take a leading role in that work, with a Rheumatic Fever Strategy National Partnership Agreement operating since 2009.

The Heart Foundation worked closely with Australia’s leading chronic disease experts and organisations last year on the Getting Australia’s Health on Track report, to set targets for reducing the occurrence of chronic diseases including cardiovascular illness, diabetes and cancers, by 2025.

Welcoming that report, the Heart Foundation and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) jointly called to eliminate Rheumatic Heart Disease by 2031. 

With more than 3,000 hospital admissions and almost 1,000 deaths due to RHF or RHD in Australia each year , the elimination of Rheumatic Heart Disease in Australia is a big task, but one that we are committed to.

Rheumatic Heart Disease is almost exclusively found in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia. It is deemed an entirely preventable disease of poverty. It can be treated or prevented at several stages, but too often, our indigenous people do not receive the treatment they need. 

This is not acceptable.

Eliminating RHD is a big step in reducing – and eventually removing - the overall mortality and health gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

That’s why the Heart Foundation, through its Federal Budget submission, asked for $100 million over 10 years to close the gap on rheumatic heart disease. 

We are delighted that the Government not only re-committed to funding for the Rheumatic Fever Strategy, but actually strengthened it. Over the next four years, the Government will spend $18.8 million on the strategy’s measures to prevent and manage acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and rheumatic heart disease (RHD) – on top of the $11.2 million already committed.

The Heart Foundation currently funds several research projects related to Rheumatic Heart Disease, including research into rheumatic heart disease in children, research into the link between scabies and RHD, a childhood RHD screening project, and research to develop group A streptococcal vaccines to prevent rheumatic fever globally.

We hope these projects will bring real improvements to preventing, managing and ultimately eliminating Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease in Australia and around the world.

Through our advocacy role, we will also continue to press for the global commitment to be fully adopted at the World Health Assembly next May by engaging with key decision-makers.

Watch this space!