Rheumatic fever champion wins award (mean Te Arawa!)

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National Rheumatic Fever Co-ordinator Helen Herbert (Te Arawa, Ngati Pikiao, Whakatohea) from Whangaroa is this years winner of the Public Health Associations (PHA) prestigious Tu Rangatira mo to Ora award. The award recognises a person, group or organisation, iwi/hapu, or marae that has shown leadership in hauora (Maori health) development.

“We are thrilled to present this award to Helen,” PHA spokesperson Lisa McNab said at the PHAs annual conference at Pipitea Campus, Victoria University, Wellington today.

“Helen has used her experience as a mother of a child with rheumatic fever as her own trajectory into the Maori health sector. Her work and national profile are impressive. She now leads the prevention of rheumatic fever in Maori communities around the country.”

In 1999 Helens son Joshua contracted rheumatic fever. The family was living in Kaeo at the time.

“I was really annoyed to discover the disease is preventable,” Helen said.

“It meant Joshua couldnt play sport for 12 months, and we had to stay at Whangarei Hospital for the first month of Joshuas treatment. Every month after that Joshua had to have painful penicillin injections, which continued until he was 20.

“It was a very difficult time for us as a whanau and I knew then I wanted to help other families and communities struggling with this terrible disease. At Whangaroa we had the highest rate of rheumatic fever in the country, so when a rheumatic fever prevention campaign was developed in 2002, I joined the team.

“As soon as the Whangaroa Rheumatic Fever Project kicked in, rheumatic fever in the area stopped which showed that prevention is the key. Once families know what signs to look for in their children they are immediately able to take preventive measures. Sore throats matter and must be treated immediately.

“As a result of my work at Whangaroa, I was asked to help establish a programme at Kaikohe and in 2007 I was appointed to the role of Regional Rheumatic Fever Co-ordinator based at Ngati Hine Health Trust.”

Helens appointment to the Ngati Hine Health Trust was very appropriate because the Trust came into being in 1992 to implement a “ground breaking” project for Te Hotu Manawa Maori (the Maori Heart Foundation) in the prevention of rheumatic fever. Gwen Tepania Palmer designed the project as chief executive of Te Hotu Manawa Maori and went on later to become Chair of the Ngati Hine Health Trust.

In her current role as the National Co-ordinator for Rheumatic Fever Helen oversees work in the seven regions where rates of rheumatic fever are high: Northland; Auckland; Waikato; Bay of Plenty; Rotorua; Hawkes Bay; Gisborne (Tairawhiti); East Porirua. Ngati Hine Health Trust oversees this national co-ordination role.

“I help establish new services, and co-ordinate existing services. Because of all the work we have done over the last few years awareness of rheumatic fever has increased. We are able to work with new sites as they come online and share our experience of what works and what doesnt.”

Ngati Hine Health Trust Manager Maxine Shortland believes the national co-ordination of the prevention of rheumatic fever is a huge undertaking – but Helen Herbert is up for the challenge.

“Helen brings to this role her own experience as the mother of a child who contracted rheumatic fever,” Maxine said.

“Helen became involved initially as a volunteer, and this means she can work at a strategic big picture level, but she is also very comfortable working with whanau and small communities. She also has a very warm connection with children and this gives her a huge advantage. Helen loves this work and loves running training for our community providers.

“As well as acknowledging Helens passion for her work, and the contribution she has made to the battle against rheumatic fever, we can also celebrate a major shift in awareness of rheumatic fever around the country. Helen has been integral to this developing awareness.”

Rheumatic Fever at a Glance

  • DEADLY:It can cause permanent damage to the heart and result in premature death.
  • SIGNS:It often starts with a sore throat caused by a streptococcal infection, which may be followed by aching joints, rash, shaking and tiredness.
  • PREVENTABLE:Strep throat can be detected with a painless throat swab and treated with a 10 day course of (penicillin) antibiotics.
  • MOST AT RISK:Maori and Pacific Island children age 5-18.

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