The federal government will put $35 million towards developing a vaccine for rheumatic heart disease, a devastating illness that largely affects Indigenous children and young adults.
The money from the Medical Research Future Fund allowing the manufacture and testing of vaccines as well as fast-tracking and funding of clinical trials, Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt said.
“Today is a game-changing step. Ending rheumatic heart disease is a critical, tangible target to close the gap in Indigenous life expectancy,” Mr Wyatt in a statement released on Sunday.
“The trials and development, led by Australia’s leading infectious disease experts and coordinated by the Telethon Kids Institute, will give hope to thousands of First Nations people whose lives and families have been catastrophically affected by this illness.”
Australia has one of the highest rates of RHD in the world and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 64 times more likely to develop the disease.
Indigenous children and young adults are most at risk suffering from the disease at more than 100 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.
The disease damages the heart valves caused by repeated bouts of acute rheumatic fever which is an auto-immune reaction to untreated throat and skin infections.
Sufferers, like seven-year-old Tenaya, must endure a penicillin injection every 28 days, usually for a minimum of 10 years.
She and 6000 other Indigenous Australians live with the preventable disease which was eliminated from non-Indigenous communities in the 1930s.
More than $23 million will be allocated under the Rheumatic Fever Strategy over the next four years, including $12.8 million for continued support for existing state-based programs in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the funding will help save lives.
“Vulnerable communities, in particular Indigenous communities, will get the medicines they need; and Australian industry will have the opportunity to collaborate in developing and distributing the breakthrough vaccine, both here and overseas,” he said.
Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM, director of the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, will direct the END RHD vaccine initiative and overseen by a scientific advisory board including Australian and international experts.
The project will also be informed by an Indigenous Advisory Committee who will ensure that the voices of Indigenous Australians are heard and acknowledged, and that all components of the work are culturally safe and appropriate. It follows a commitment from the government and Labor to fund potentially life-saving heart health checks.