Five Aboriginal medical services and the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth will receive more than $4.6 million to target potentially deadly rheumatic heart disease in hot spots across Australia, as a new app to fight the disease is launched in the Northern Territory.

Federal Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt said the five medical services would share $3.7 million in federal funding over three years to lead local pilot programs to combat the disease.

The services are the Pika Wiya Health Service Aboriginal Corporatin in South Australia, the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Ltd in Western Australia, the Apunipima Cape York Health Council in Queensland and the Malabam Health Board and the Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation in the Northern Territory.

He said two-thirds of WA First Nations people suffering from rheumatic heart disease (RHD) lived in the Kimberley and the Telethon Kids Institute would receive $950,000 over two years to establish a community approach to the disease across the region.

RHD is damage to the heart valves caused by repeated bouts of acute rheumatic fever, an auto-immune reaction to untreated throat and skin infections. Poor living conditions make the infections, and rheumatic fever, more likely.

Mr Wyatt said more than 6,000 First Nations people were living with RHD and the treatment could be painful and prolonged.

He said rheumatic heart disease and acute rheumatic fever claim scores of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives each year, including young people.

Meanwhile, a new smartphone app to fight RHD has been launched in the Northern Territory.

Menzies School of Health researcher Dr Alice Mitchell developed the free ‘Take Heart’ app with support from Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation and visual communications firm Moonshine Agency.

The app helps people who need penicillin injections to protect themselves from rheumatic fever and heart disease keep track of when they are due with push alerts.

It can be used on Apple or Android phones.

“Once people know about the disease and the importance of treatment, they are very committed to the treatment,” Dr Mitchell said. “The Take Heart app notifies users of their next injection date and sends reminder alerts.”

Dr Mitchell said she knew of one person who began treatment at eight years of age, but stopped when he became a young adult, thinking he was okay. He died at the age of 20.

“Treatment is long-term and painful; it’s an injection every 21 to 28 days for 10 years,” she said.

“He didn’t like the treatment because it hurt. He stopped having his injections when he became a young adult because he didn’t know he still needed to and it was vital for his health.”

Dr Mitchell said RHD rates in remote communities in the Northern Territory were among some of the highest in the world.

She said about one in 20 children in Maningrida, Arnhem Land, had the disease.

“This is alarming,” she said. “Many only know it as ‘that heart sickness’ and aren’t aware of the importance of treatment,” she said. “There is a lot of confusion; many don’t know when or why they need an injection, particularly for such a long time and so often.”

“Children as young as four have died from RHD and the tragedy is it’s entirely preventable.”

For more information about the app and where to download it visit:

By Wendy Caccetta