School campaign tackles rheumatic fever

By Martin Johnston

School pupil Crystal King, 13, and ex-Warrior Awen Guttenbeil have had rheumatic fever. Photo / Brett Phibbs
School pupil Crystal King, 13, and ex-Warrior Awen Guttenbeil have had rheumatic fever. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A former Kiwis league international and a 13-year-old Glen Innes girl both kept quiet at first about their sore throats - and now regret it.

Awen Guttenbeil, now a 37-year-old broadcaster, and year 8 student Crystal King shared stories yesterday about coming down with rheumatic fever years earlier, before they - and three Warriors league players - attended a special assembly at Glen Innes School.

The assembly launched the Auckland central part of the Government programme to fight the rheumatic fever by testing all children at high-risk schools who have a sore throat and giving them antibiotics if it is caused by the bug that can lead to rheumatic fever.

Mr Guttenbeil told the assembly of concealing a sore throat from his parents when he was 9 because he didn't want to miss out on playing sports. He got so sick he couldn't walk.

"It was like I was paralysed."

He developed a heart problem and spent months in hospital, followed by years of monthly penicillin injections - but his illness did not prevent him fulfilling his dream of becoming a top sportsman.

His message to the school was: "If you feel sick, you've got to tell someone."

Crystal agreed.

"You've just got to tell a doctor and tell your parents first," she said. "I didn't tell my parents. I thought I could get better. Now I regret that."

Crystal caught rheumatic fever in 2006, when aged 6. She had had a cold, then came down with a sore, itchy throat. Her condition suddenly worsened. She developed a fever, became breathless, had painful joints and eventually couldn't walk. She spent months in Starship children's hospital.

"She was very close to death; it nearly took her," her mother Tui King said.

Like Mr Guttenbeil, Crystal developed heart trouble, but neither has had to have heart valve surgery, unlike some rheumatic fever patients.

Rheumatic fever is an inflammation of various parts of the body such as the joints and can damage the valves in the heart. It is an immune system response to an infection with streptococcal A bacteria, the cause of the sore throat.

The Auckland District Health Board programme involves nurses doing throat swabs on children with sore throats at 16 schools in areas that have high rates of rheumatic fever.

The programme begins next week at Glen Innes School and Panmure Bridge Primary School.

What is it?

* Rheumatic fever starts with a sore throat
* It is a reaction to streptococcal A bacteria that caused the sore throat
* Prevented by treating sore throat with antibiotics
* Can cause sore joints, jerky movements and permanent heart valve damage
* Extremely high rates among Maori and Pacific people
* Most cases occur in poor areas.

- NZ Herald

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