Rheumatic Fever on the Rise Rheumatic fever is a disease that had almost disappeared in this county. The reason for the decline wasn't known for sure, but many medical epidemiologists felt less crowding, better access to medical care, and increased antibiotic availability were important factors. But, for reasons yet to be found, there has been a recent rise in the number of cases of rheumatic fever.
Rheumatic fever is commonly, though not exclusively, acquired when a strep throat is not treated. In epidemics, about 3 percent of people with untreated strep throat develop rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever causes inflammation of the heart 90 percent of the time, which often, but not always, leads to valve damage.
Rheumatic fever itself is not contagious. Strep throat is spread by close contact. It's one of the most common infectious diseases in 5 to 15 years olds.
It's been though that treatment of strep throat prevents rheumatic fever, but recent outbreaks contradict this idea. In a recent Salt Lake City outbreak, most of the people who developed rheumatic fever had very mild -- or no -- symptoms of strep throat and didn't seek medical care until the rheumatic fever developed.
Recent outbreaks in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Akron and other cities have followed a similar pattern, affecting mostly middle-class families. Parents and physicians need to pay attention to minor childhood sore throats, particularly in areas where there have been cases of rheumatic fever.
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