Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Ex-Blues player supports call for rheumatic heart disease screening

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Former Blues player Matt Johnson in 2020 after he underwent open heart surgery. He has been living with the effects of rheumatic heart disease since contracting rheumatic fever when he was just 13 years old. Photo: Lawrence Smith / Stuff
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Local Democracy Reporting | Free Public Interest News Service

A former Blues player is backing calls for a new screening programme to help find those living with the effects of rheumatic heart disease.

The condition nearly killed him when he was just 13.

A study released on Monday found up to 1 in 50 young Pasifika adults living in south Auckland may have the disease.

The prevalence of the condition in Counties Manukau is comparable to that found in Africa, it said.

A screening programme to find those with the condition and treat them is an important way to get on top of the disease, Te Whatu Ora (Counties Manukau) head of population health Gary Jackson said.

Matt Johnson was just 13 when he found out he had rheumatic heart disease. Photo: RNZ

Matt Johnson grew up in Manurewa and despite health problems in his youth, went on to play for the Melbourne Storm and the Auckland Blues.

But the effects of rheumatic heart disease finally caught up with him in 2020 and he had to retire from sport after undergoing open-heart surgery for the third time.

These days, Johnson works as a teacher at Auckland’s St Peter’s College. He said he would support any move to improve screening for the potentially deadly condition.

“There are a lot of patients who just fall through the cracks in the health system, so a screening programme could help pick up more people with rheumatic heart disease.”

The 29-year-old Māngere resident now has a mechanical valve in his heart and will have to take blood thinners for the rest of his life, “but hopefully I never have to go under the knife again”.

Counties Manukau has historically been a national hotspot for rheumatic fever and records the highest case numbers in the country.

Rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease are the result of recurring, untreated strep throat or streptococcal pharyngitis.

If left untreated, they can lead to inflammation of the heart, joints, brain and skin. Rheumatic heart disease is the condition that results from the heart valves being permanently damaged by rheumatic fever.

Jackson said Te Whatu Ora (Counties Manukau) has a system to record people who have rheumatic fever who are undergoing treatment, but there is no way of knowing if someone has rheumatic heart disease if they haven’t visited their doctor or a hospital with symptoms.

A student receiving a test for Streptococcus bacteria, or strep throat – the precursor to rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. Photo: Chris Skelton / Stuff

He said there is a need for a more widespread heart screening programme in hotspot areas like south Auckland.

The use of echocardiograms is one way to do that, he said.

If people are screened and found to have rheumatic heart disease, they can often then be treated to prevent further damage to their heart.

“It’s so frustrating because it is preventable,” he said.

Local Democracy Reporting understands Te Whatu Ora has earmarked funding for a pilot screening programme, but exact details in when it will be rolled out, how it will be staffed and the scope of the scheme haven’t been established.

Te Whatu Ora was approached for comment.

Local democracy reporting



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