Rheumatic fever also commonly affects young children who are most susceptible, as the infection can easily spread to other children.
About 25 years ago, the Department of Health declared the first week of August Rheumatic Fever Week. The campaign hopes to bring a spotlight to a condition that affects disproportionately women and children.
What is Rheumatic Fever Week? Naathirah Hendricks, public relations and communications from the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) explained, “[It is] an abnormal immune reaction against a common bacterium called group A streptococcus. Patients typically experience a range of symptoms that can include joint pain, fever above 38°C, feeling generally unwell and tired with shortness of breath, sometimes a skin rash, and uncontrolled body movements.”
Hendricks said that acute rheumatic fever (ARF) then results in rheumatic heart disease (RHD) the condition is the most common type of heart disease amongst children and young adults below the age of 25. Rheumatic fever was the most common cause of death in the 1900s, with living standards improving greatly it is non-existent in most developed countries, especially after the introduction of antibiotics. However, it is still an issue in developing nations such as South Africa.
The fever first starts two or three weeks earlier with a bacterial throat infection, commonly called strep throat, Hendricks explained. One episode or repeated episodes can cause damage to heart valves, stroke, heart failure, and even death.
Strep throat symptoms:
- Throat pain
- Pain on swallowing
- Fever higher than 38°C
- Generally feeling unwell, headache, nausea, vomiting or weakness.
- If you experience such symptoms, seek medical advice and parents should not send their child to school to avoid spreading the infection to other children.
Once the rheumatic fever has been contracted, reoccurrence increases, it is treated by the oldest antibiotic – penicillin. Professor Liesl Zühlke, a pediatric cardiologist and immediate past president of the South African Heart Association, explained, “Effective preventive treatment is both available and cost-effective. It requires that a child with a suspected throat infection is taken to a doctor or clinic, and for a nurse or doctor to correctly diagnose and treat a streptococcal infection.”
The infection is also preventable by teaching good hygiene to children.