Improving rheumatic heart disease care and understanding why mental illness affects the heart are some of the latest Kiwi research projects being celebrated by the Heart Foundation on World Heart Day.

The Foundation is marking World Heart Day by celebrating having reached the milestone – after granting $1.8 million in research grants and fellowships for 2017 – of investing almost $60 million in heart research and specialist training since it began nearly 50 years ago.

The Sky Tower will pulsate red tonight (September 29) to raise awareness for the world’s number one killer – cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes heart disease and stroke – kicking off a series of monuments being lit up around the world from Table Mountain in South Africa to the Great Pyramids in Giza and New York’s Time Square.

Heart Foundation Medical Director Gerry Devlin said while CVD kills about 10,000 New Zealanders a year there has been a 75 per cent reduction in the death rate from heart disease since the Foundation began, and the $60 million in research and training has undoubtedly contributed to that reduction.

He said the Foundation’s 2017 grants covers a wide spectrum “starting with laboratory research right through to improving cardiovascular risk prediction and investing in cutting-edge overseas training for Kiwi cardiologists”, along with a project looking into why mental illness affected the heart and investigating the criteria for treadmill testing for low-risk patients presenting to emergency departments.

New Zealand’s first Rheumatic Heart Disease Registry

Amongst the 2017 grants is funding for New Zealand’s first Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) Registry so researchers can gather important data on the disease that, like its cause – rheumatic fever – disproportionately hits young Māori and Pacific people.

The $130,000 project is being led by Associate Professor Nigel Wilson of Starship Hospital, who said RHD hits young people who should be in the prime of their lives but instead face dealing with a “heart disease of inequity”.

“In many ways New Zealand leads the world in understanding acute rheumatic fever but when it comes to the heart disease it is responsible for – which can lead to premature death, heart failure, heart surgery, strokes or heart valve infections – we have very little New Zealand data,” said Wilson. He said researchers want to understand the extent of RHD and the quality of care, so they could make improvements for both patients and health services. To do this they needed hard data but currently that didn’t exist like it did for rheumatic fever.

During the project’s first phase, researchers will establish the numbers of Kiwis living with RHD, and how they are affected by it, by gathering information from existing databases and hospital admissions. The second phase will determine the quality of RHD medical and surgical care and investigate any inequalities of care.

“There are inequalities because currently Māori and Pacific are the groups that are getting rheumatic fever and therefore severe RHD, we want to understand the extent of these and how we can minimise them,” said Wilson.

“We also know that because a lot of people with RHD tend to be more socially disadvantaged they are more likely to fall through the cracks and not attend health clinics. That is our impression but again, we need better data.”

Qualitative studies were also part of the study so health services could better evolve to meet the needs of RHD patients and their families.

The charity’s 2017 funding round includes two senior fellowships, three research fellowships, three overseas training and research fellowships, two postgraduate scholarships, six project grants, one grant-in-aid, six small project grants, 10 travel grants and five summer studentships awarded throughout New Zealand.

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