Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is a multisystem disease resulting from an autoimmune reaction to infection with group A streptococcus. Although many parts of the body may be affected, almost all of the manifestations resolve completely. The major exception is cardiac valvular damage (rheumatic heart disease [RHD]), which may persist after the other features have disappeared.
ARF and RHD are diseases of poverty. They were common in all countries until the early twentieth century, when their incidence began to decline in industrialized nations. This decline was largely attributable to improved living conditions—particularly less crowded housing and better hygiene—which resulted in reduced transmission of group A streptococci. The introduction of antibiotics and improved systems of medical care had a supplemental effect.
The virtual disappearance of ARF and reduction in the incidence of RHD in industrialized countries during the twentieth century unfortunately was not replicated in developing countries, where these diseases continue unabated. RHD is the most common cause of heart disease in children in developing countries and is a major cause of mortality and morbidity in adults as well. It has been estimated that between 15 and 19 million people worldwide are affected by RHD, with approximately one-quarter of a million deaths occurring each year. Some 95% of ARF cases and RHD deaths now occur in developing countries, with particularly high rates in sub-Saharan Africa, Pacific nations, Australasia, and South and Central Asia. The pathogenetic pathway from exposure to group A streptococcus followed by pharyngeal infection and subsequent development of ARF, ARF recurrences, and development of RHD and its complications is associated with a range of risk factors and, therefore, potential interventions at each point (Fig. 32-1). In affluent countries, many of these risk factors are well controlled, and where needed, interventions are in place. Unfortunately, the greatest burden of disease is found in developing countries, most of which do not have the resources, capacity, and/or interest to tackle this multifaceted disease. In particular, almost none of the developing countries has a coordinated, register-based RHD control program, which is proven to be cost effective in reducing the burden of RHD. Enhancing awareness of RHD and mobilizing resources for its control in developing countries are issues requiring international attention.
Pathogenetic pathway for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, with associated risk factors and opportunities for intervention at each step. Interventions in parentheses are either unproven or currently unavailable.
ARF is mainly a disease of children age 5–14 years. Initial episodes become less common in older adolescents and young adults and are rare in persons age >30 years. By contrast, recurrent episodes of ARF remain relatively common in adolescents and young adults. This pattern contrasts with the prevalence of RHD, which peaks between 25 ...