An Aboriginal health service in the Northern Territory says a funding request to conduct more accurate screening for rheumatic heart disease in the nine communities it covers was rejected because it did not meet the criteria as an “emerging priority.”

Rheumatic heart disease is prevalent in Top End communities, caused by exposure to Strep A infection generally through overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.

Indigenous people suffer from the disease at much higher rates than the rest of the population.

The most common practise to detect the disease has been to listen for a ‘heart murmur’ using a stethoscope, however this can miss 40 per cent or more of cases and more recently a small device called an echocardiogram has been used for greater accuracy.

A recent study by the Menzies School of Health and NT Cardiac found between five and ten per cent of children in one community covered by Sunshine Health had previously gone undiagnosed with the disease.

Bill Palmer is the CEO for Sunrise Health, located in Katherine, and says the consequences of undetected RHD can be devastating.

“Mostly it goes undetected and the only way we find out that someone has had rheumatic heart disease is when they drop dead on the playing field from a heart attack or die when they are pregnant. For most, they and their families never knew they had Rheumatic Heart Disease.”

Mr Palmer said, “We applied for funding through the Commonwealth, to undertake echocardiogram screening in every one of our nine communities – it didn’t surprise us that over 5% of those screened in Barunga were identified as having early stage Rheumatic Heart Disease – we were unsuccessful in obtaining that funding as it was considered that Rheumatic Heart Disease did not meet the criteria as an emerging priority.

Sunshine Health Service Chair Anne Marie Lee is passionate about fighting the disease.

“For the past five years I have devoted my time to Rheumatic Heart Disease and learning to perform echocardiograms – I am passionate about this disease – it is a silent killer and we have the means to reveal it early and stop this waste of young people’s lives – it is time for the Commonwealth Government to get behind us, funding the mass checking for Rheumatic Heart Disease across the Top End and to make changes to the Medicare system so that an echocardiogram is part of the Annual Health Check for young people and that health services and cardiologists are funded to do this – then we might have a chance to Close the Gap.”