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Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Rheumatic fever


Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is caused by a reaction to a bacterial infection with particular strains of group A streptococcus. It has long been thought that ARF only follows streptococcal pharyngitis (sore throat), however recent studies from Aboriginal populations in Australia have suggested streptococcal skin infection may precede some cases of ARF. Those who have experienced one episode of ARF are more likely to suffer recurrent attacks with subsequent group A streptococcal infections. The most severe complication of recurrent ARF is permanent damage to heart valves, known as rheumatic heart disease.

ARF usually affects children aged 5-15 years. Most cases of ARF currently occur in developing countries. Worldwide there is an estimated 470 000 new cases of ARF annually (60% of whom eventually develop rheumatic heart disease). In most developed countries ARF is now rare, with a few notable exceptions; the highest documented rates of ARF in the world are in Maori and Pacific people in New Zealand, Aboriginal Australians, and those in Pacific Island nations.

Clinical features of rheumatic fever

Symptoms of ARF generally develop several weeks after an episode of streptococcal pharyngitis (however many patients do not recall having a sore throat). As well as non-specific symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain, and muscle aches, ARF causes a variety of characteristic clinical features:

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Erythema marginatum

Diagnosis of rheumatic fever

The diagnosis of ARF is challenging, as there are no clinical features or diagnostic tests available to confirm or rule out this condition. Instead, the diagnosis is made using the Jones criteria. These criteria require evidence of a preceding group A streptococcus infection, and various combinations of the characteristic features above and other non-specific clinical features. A detailed explanation of these criteria (and modifications for the New Zealand environment) can be found on the National Heart Foundation of New Zealand website.

Tests to confirm evidence of a group A streptococcal infection include:

Other tests used in the assessment of a patient with suspected ARF include:

Treatment of rheumatic fever

Following a diagnosis of rheumatic fever, it is standard practice to treat the group A streptococcal infection that led to the disease with oral penicillin (although this practice has not been proven to alter long-term outcomes).

Following the initial attack, patients are treated with continuous penicillin to prevent further streptococcal colonisation or infection and additional damage to the heart. Continuous penicillin is also recommended for people with established rheumatic heart disease. Continuous penicillin is generally given by injection every four weeks for a minimum of 10 years. Some patients, such as those with severe carditis, may require lifelong treatment.

Patients with rheumatic heart disease may occasionally require heart surgery to repair or replace damaged heart valves.

Prevention of rheumatic fever

ARF can be prevented with timely treatment of group A streptococcal pharyngitis, particularly in people aged 5-15 years. People with sore throat and fever should see the doctor for advice. Vaccines are currently in development and are eagerly awaited.

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Author: Marie Hartley, Staff Writer

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