Transtasman researchers are confident a vaccine for rheumatic fever is "now within reach".
The Australian and New Zealand governments have spent a combined $3.2 million on the joint project, which aims to identify a likely candidate vaccine already in progress towards clinical trials.
Rheumatic fever is caused by group A streptococcus throat infection, which mostly occurs in children aged between 4 and 15.
While almost eliminated in most developed countries, New Zealand's rate of rheumatic fever is 14 times the OECD average.
It's particularly prevalent among Maori and Pacific children, and is associated with social deprivation and poor living conditions.
New Zealand has 160 cases a year, with the cost of hospital admissions for rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease totalling $12 million a year.
Recurring infections cause chronic damage to the heart valve, known as rheumatic heart disease.
Jonathan Carapetis from the Telethon Institute in Perth and Professor John Fraser, dean of medical and health sciences at the University of Auckland, are leading the project.
Professor Fraser told a media briefing yesterday that New Zealand was currently screening school children with sore throats in at-risk communities to reduce rates of the disease.
But the only long-term solutions were to address the social deprivation, or develop a vaccine.
"This is the most confident I've felt yet that a vaccine is now within reach," he said.
"We have the capacity. We have the will of the international community. And we have the funding of two governments to see this through."
However, there were major challenges, including the concern that a vaccine may cause the disease, because rheumatic fever was believed to be an auto-immune response to an antigen.
"There has been a long standing concern that this is a likely consequence. That's the most important safety issue with any vaccine," he said.
Another hurdle was that there were more than 200 strains of the infection in Australasia, and a successful vaccine must protect against 70 to 80 per cent of them.
It was also unlikely to be funded by the pharmaceutical industry unless it provided global protection for other infections caused by group A streptococcus.
The initiative, called Canvas - Coalition to Advance New Vaccines for Group A Streptococcus + has so far identified three potential vaccines at an advanced stage of development.
It's estimated that two stages of clinical development will take five years, followed by two to four years of final development, product registration, and vaccine roll-out.
Progress on the vaccine is being presented at the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases conference in Auckland today.