Rheumatic fever rates continue to drop - but the incidence among the Pacific population is eight times higher than the national rate.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said the latest figures continued a downward trend since 2013, and reflected the work being carried out in communities to combat the preventable disease.

New Zealand has had what many health workers consider a scandalously high rate of rheumatic fever, a Third World disease associated with poverty and especially household overcrowding.

The disease is caused by failing to detect and treat - with antibiotics - a sore throat caused by extremely infectious group A streptococcal bacteria.

Advertisement

It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of siblings of a child with a "strep throat" will catch the infection.

The latest 2015 figures from the Ministry of Health show the national hospitalisation rate for first episode rheumatic fever was 2.1 cases per 100,000 people - a drop from 3.7 in 2012.

The rate for the Pacific population has also decreased, but is still much higher at 16.6 cases per 100,000. The Pasifika rate was 19.3 in 2012. For Maori, the rate had dropped to 6.3 cases per 100,000, down from 13.5.

Dr Coleman said $65 million had been invested in a range of programmes that aimed to cut rheumatic fever rates.That included a Pacific Engagement Service that had engaged more than 39,000 Auckland and Wellington Pacific families through home visits and community events.

Children were also being assessed and treated for sore throats at about 200 schools in the North Island.

Rugby player Robbie Fruean, a Crusaders back, is a victim of rheumatic fever, which has twice led him to undergo heart surgery.

What is rheumatic fever?

• A complication of an infection that can start with a sore throat and is caused by a type of streptococcal bacteria.

How is it spread?

• The bacteria are spread by coughing, sneezing and sharing eating utensils.
• Close contact through living in an overcrowded house increases the risk of rheumatic fever.

What are the effects of the disease?

•It can cause joint pain and damage the heart valves, leading to heart failure and premature death.

What is the treatment?

• A 10-day course of oral antibiotics for the strep throat.
• Years of monthly antibiotic injections for rheumatic fever.
• Surgery to replace damaged heart valves.