Inequality Is Making Kids Sick

The rising rate of rheumatic fever among Māori and Pasifika children is one of the sharpest examples yet of the direct harm caused by New Zealand’s high level of inequality, Peter Malcolm, spokesperson for the income equality project Closing the Gap, said today.

Rheumatic fever is ‘canary in the coalpit’

University of Auckland researcher Dr. Julie Spray calls rheumatic fever ‘the canary in the coal mine for inequality’, and her recent work makes clear that unless the root cause — inequality — is addressed, we will be unable to reduce the incidence of this damaging illness.

“As Dr. Spray points out, the current approach to prevention which involves identifying and medicating kids with sore throats, won’t work if they’re simply sent back to the same inadequate housing,” Mr. Malcolm said.

Successive governments have been trying for years to reduce New Zealand’s stubborn rates of rheumatic fever, including the previous National government, and still the rates go up.

Bold policies needed

“Given the links between this illness and deprivation, overcrowding and poor housing, a medical approach can only do so much. What we need are bold policies, starting with providing good quality social housing, particularly for families with children,” Mr. Malcolm said.

While not usually fatal in itself, rheumatic fever can cause lasting heart damage that kills up to 200 New Zealanders a year.

“We as a society need to take responsibility for the social and economic inequalities that underlie this illness,” he said. “Until we do, more Māori and Pasifika children and their families will be forced to pay an unconscionably heavy price.”

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