Skip to main content

Rheumatic Heart Disease

Learn about the causes of Rheumatic heart disease and life saving treatments

What is Rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease affects an estimated 40 million people worldwide and accounts for over 300,000 deaths annually, including children. It is the most common cause of acquired heart disease in children and effects primarily those from low- and middle-income countries which accounts for approximately 80% of the world’s population. The disease is most commonly acquired by children ages 5 to 15 years.

Rheumatic heart disease is initiated by a reaction to a pharyngeal group A streptococcus infection; or strep throat. This simple strep throat can cause an abnormal immune response in susceptible individuals. Common symptoms are a sore throat, fever, joint pain, and fatigue. This condition is suggestive of acute rheumatic fever (ARF), the precursor of RHD. Symptoms will resolve, but the autoimmune reaction can cause damage to the tissues of the heart valves. Once an individual develops ARF or RHD, the probability of repeated bouts of ARF after exposure to group A strep are exponentially increased, resulting in recurring, progressive damage to the vales of the heart. If left untreated, RHD can cause damage to the mitral and aortic valves which can over time lead to a failing heart with shortness of breath, fatigue, and possible death. This is particularly problematic for young women who are pregnant where maternal and fetal disability and death are much more common.

If RHD can be identified early in the disease process, antibiotic therapy can prevent progression of the disease and avoid much pain and suffering. The use of echocardiography (ultrasound of the heart) can be used to identify children with the early phase of RHD which will allow the child to receive the needed preventative antibiotic therapy. The goal of the Rheumatic Relief program is to identify children at this early phase to prevent progression to symptoms and death.