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New research has found that genetic differences in antibody genes alter individuals’ susceptibility to rheumatic heart disease, a forgotten inflammatory heart condition – known as ‘RHD’ – that is rife in developing countries.

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Rheumatic heart disease is triggered by bacterial sore throat or skin infection during childhood. The disease causes the heart valves to stiffen until eventually the heart starts to fail. Without surgery, which is usually not available to those affected, many will die during early adulthood.

The disease is endemic in the Pacific and in Fiji, where the disease burden has been most comprehensively studied, it is a leading cause of death in the young causing a similar number of deaths among adolescents and young adults to suicide and road traffic accidents. Several studies have shown the disease is also found frequently in Sub-Saharan Africa. While estimating the death toll there has been more difficult, it is likely to be substantial.

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