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Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is a preventable illness affecting about 6,000 Australians, with Indigenous children 55 times more likely to die from the disease than their non-Indigenous peers.

The AMA recognises the role RHD contributes to the widening of the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In 2016, we launched a Report Card on Indigenous Health, A call to action to prevent new cases of RHD in Indigenous Australia by 2031 (target year for ‘closing the gap’ in Indigenous life expectancy).

Our Report Card made a strong statement on the devastating impact of RHD and the importance of new, collaborative strategies to control the disease. Its recommendations included calling for Australian Governments to commit to a target to prevent RHD. It also recommended that governments work in partnership with the Indigenous community to fund and implement a strategy to end RHD.

The Report Card also provided an opportunity for a group of leading health, community, and research organisations to form a coalition END RHD. The purpose of the coalition is to advocate for urgent, comprehensive action on this preventable disease of inequality, and to support those living with the disease and prevent new cases arising.

The founding members of END RHD are the AMA, Heart Foundation, RHD Australia (based at the Menzies School of Health Research), the END RHD Centre of Research Excellence (based at Telethon Kids Institute), the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia (AHCWA), the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia (AHCSA), the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC), and the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW (AH&MRC).

To eliminate rheumatic heart disease in Australia, the coalition calls on the Federal Government to:

  • guarantee that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership drives the development and implementation of RHD prevention strategies;
  • set targets to end RHD in Australia;
  • fund a roadmap to end RHD by 2031;
  • commit to immediate action in communities at high risk of rheumatic heart disease; and
  • invest in strategic research and technology to prevent and treat acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.

In the two years since the Alliance was formed, END RHD has been working with the communities at risk, securing funding and political will to translate research into action and educating Australians to play a role in ending RHD.

I believe the momentum is growing. RHD was discussed at the COAG meetings in August and October 2018. This has been further helped by the recent commitment from Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt, to a Roadmap to end RHD in Australia, which is due to be completed by early 2019.

There is no doubt that funding is a crucial part of the equation to ending RHD. Recent developments include $3.7m being allocated to five Aboriginal medical services for local community-led pilot Acute Rheumatic Fever (ARF) and RHD prevention programs.

A further $950,000 has been granted to the Telethon Kids Institute to work with the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services to establish an innovative END RHD community program focussed on environmental health and local workforce development.

On 23rd October 2018 an advocacy event at Parliament House, co-hosted by END RHD and the Snow Foundation, where the Government was asked for non-partisan commitment to eliminate RHD in Australia. Minister Wyatt and Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health Warren Snowden both made commitments in public to tackle RHD as a non-partisan issue. It is an important step for political leaders to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.

Now, with community-driven change and funding to enable the change, we can hopefully start to bring about the end for RHD in Australia.