New Zealand, Australia join forces to battle rheumatic fever

Scientists on both sides of the Tasman Sea are working together to create a vaccine against the global scourge of rheumatic fever, a disease that disproportionately affects indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

IANS| Updated: Sep 16, 2014, 16:28 PM IST

Wellington: Scientists on both sides of the Tasman Sea are working together to create a vaccine against the global scourge of rheumatic fever, a disease that disproportionately affects indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

The Coalition to Advance New Vaccines for Group A Streptococcus (CANVAS) launched the initiative Tuesday with funding from the governments of New Zealand and Australia, Xinhua reported.

The University of Auckland Faculty of Medical Health and Sciences Dean John Fraser would lead a team in New Zealand, in partnership with an Australian team led by Jonathan Carapetis, to evaluate and accelerate development of a preventive vaccine selected from three vaccines already in development overseas.

"Rheumatic fever is a major Third World health issue. If we successfully engineer a vaccine for New Zealand and Australia, we then know it can be done for areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and South America, where the disease is an even worse problem," Fraser said in a statement from CANVAS.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said in the statement that the New Zealand government had invested more than NZ$65 million ($53.06 million) over six years to combat the preventable illness.

In New Zealand, Maori and Pacific Islanders made up most of those with rheumatic fever, which could progress to scarring of the heart valves and sometimes death.

Fraser said the rate of rheumatic fever in New Zealand was "appalling".

CANVAS would evaluate three existing vaccines from three different countries to see whether they would work in a local setting or if they could be adapted to meet local needs, Fraser said.

However, Group A Streptococcus, the bacteria that causes rheumatic fever, is tricky, with up to 200 different strains, meaning any vaccine must have good coverage against most strains circulating in the community.

"Vaccines for certain infectious diseases are not as commercially rewarding as other therapeutics. Anything more than a dollar a dose is too expensive for public health, hence, it's difficult to get vaccine development through big pharmacies and most vaccines developed in the last 15 years have emerged through a combination of government, private and philanthropic investment," said Fraser.

A successful vaccine will change the way rheumatic fever is treated.

"Instead of NZ$30,000 NZ plus for heart surgery, it will be a few dollars for a vaccination with a significant and measurable reduction in personal, community and national health costs," he said.

The governments of New Zealand and Australia had committed initial funding of NS$1.5 million each to support laboratory-based work and a health-economics analysis over the first 18-month stage.

Based on performance and results, the governments might commit further funding to support subsequent clinical trials and vaccination.