Rheumatic heart disease, also called rheumatic fever, occurs when an untreated strep throat infection migrates to the joints and heart, causing fever, muscle aches, and possible permanent heart valve damage. Just as “rheumatism” refers to joint pain, “rheumatic” fever gets its name because one of its main symptoms is actually pain in the joints rather than the heart.
The National Institute of Health estimate that rheumatic heart disease develops in about 3% of untreated strep throat infections in the United States. Because mainly young people get strep, accordingly rheumatic heart disease mostly strikes people aged between six and fifteen years old.
Most people in the west who get strep will never develop rheumatic heart disease, because the strep throat infection is treated effectively with antibiotics. However, if fever, irregular heart beat, nodes under the skin, and other symptoms appear after a strep infection, a doctor will perform lab tests to diagnose rheumatic fever.
Penicillin treats rheumatic heart disease symptoms, including the contraction of the heart, which may damage heart valves; however, there is no cure for the disease, and patients must continue with penicillin injections. Some doctors argue this treatment should continue for the rest of the patient’s life. Left untreated, besides the symptoms of physical pain, rheumatic heart disease can cause permanent heart valve damage. Without surgery, heart valve damage can lead to fatal heart failure.
Cases And Treatment Worldwide
Doctors working with the Australian National Heart Foundation are working on a vaccine to prevent rheumatic fever. After an unexplained jump in the number of cases among the Aboriginal population of Australia from 2004 to 2006, doctors launched the world’s most advanced investigation of rheumatic heart disease.
In New Zealand as well, rheumatic fever is a problem among some populations, and the treatment there is penicillin shots every month for ten years. One famous rugby player, a childhood victim of rheumatic heart disease, admits to “getting lazy” about having his shots, and the symptoms of the disease returned to him as an adult. Luckily, he knew his problem and how to get help. Some people, especially those with little access to health care, simply suffer through fever attacks, and fall victim to heart valve failure.
In fact, the World Heart Federation in Geneva, Switzerland calls rheumatic fever a disease born of poverty. Though it is easily prevented by a good strep throat treatment, many young people of the world do not have access to the healthcare that would keep their heart valves healthy and extend their lives.