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Rheumatic fever research partnership projects gain major support

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Monday 16 December 2013 3:00pm

University of Otago, Wellington researchers have been awarded major funding for two projects aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of rheumatic fever in New Zealand.

One project, led by Professor Michael Baker, aims to identify important risk factors for rheumatic fever while the other, led by Professor Julian Crane, will investigate how useful oral probiotics might be in preventing the strep throat infections that cause the disease.

The two investigations are among four newly funded research projects that the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) announced today. These projects have been funded through the Rheumatic Fever Research Partnership, a joint initiative between the Heart Foundation, Cure Kids, Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Health and the HRC.

Rheumatic fever is a serious illness, which in New Zealand most often affects Māori and Pacific children and young adults, aged 4–19 years. People with rheumatic heart disease may need heart valve replacement surgery, and it can cause premature death.

The Otago-led projects

Identifying risk factors for rheumatic fever in New Zealand

36 months, $799,362

Michael Baker
Professor Michael Baker

Professor Michael Baker (Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington) will lead a research project which will use a case-control study to compare cases of RF (150) with controls who do not have the disease, to identify important risk factors for rheumatic fever. Cases and controls will be interviewed about such factors as housing conditions, crowding, tobacco smoke exposure, treatment of sore throats, skin infections, and oral health. Throat swabs will be tested for the streptococcus bacteria that cause rheumatic fever. Blood specimens will be collected for vitamin D, iron stores, and other factors. At the end of the study, researchers expect to identify important risk factors for rheumatic fever, particularly those that are modifiable. This information will be used to guide prevention programmes to help lower rates of rheumatic fever in New Zealand and internationally.

Probiotic intervention to reduce streptococcal disease burden in New Zealand children

35 months, $790,319

Professor Julian Crane

Professor Julian Crane (Department of Medicine, University of Otago, Wellington) will lead a study which will measure the effect of an oral probiotic, Strep salivarius (a healthy naturally occurring bacteria that is found normally in the mouths of some children) to prevent Group A Streptococcal (GAS) sore throat in a population at high risk of rheumatic fever. Children who naturally have these bacteria in their mouths have less GAS sore throat. The Ministry of Health sore throat treatment programme currently running in East Porirua schools, in children aged 5-14 years, provides a unique opportunity to test whether this natural product currently available in pharmacies (and made in New Zealand) can reduce GAS sore throat. A small pilot study has shown a 90 per cent reduction in GAS sore throat in high risk populations but no formal blinded randomised trial has previously been undertaken.

If effective, this strategy could be incorporated immediately into the prevention of GAS sore throat occurring in all high risk populations in New Zealand.

For more information, contact

Professor Michael Baker
Tel 64 4 385 5541 ext. 6802

Professor Julian Crane
Tel 64 4 918 5258

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