The world's leading rheumatic heart disease surgeon is warning that dozens of children could be suffering from potentially fatal rheumatic heart disease and not know it.
Cardiac surgeon Kirsten Finucane says children in high risk rheumatic fever areas need echocardiogram screening (heart screening) or face a possible early death when they are adults.
The Government announced it will spend $24 million over five years on a prevention programme that revolves around throat swab screening.
Over 35,000 children in more than 100 schools in high risk rheumatic fever areas will be swabbed and treated for the Streptococcus bug or strep throat, a precursor to irreversible heart damage.
However Finucane said it is not enough.
She said it will not help children who have already been infected and do not know their hearts are damaged.
Finucane said a sonogram can pick up undiagnosed rheumatic heart damage.
She adds that the Ministry of Health needs to expand its programme to include an echocardiogram, programme of heart screening.
"The sad thing is we've got increasing numbers coming through. It's not even dropping, the numbers are increasing rather than going down."
It is estimated 145 adults die from rheumatic heart disease in New Zealand every year.
Finucane is operating on one child a week at Starship Hospital whose hearts have been badly damaged by rheumatic fever.
She told TVNZ's Marae Investigates programme: "It's a nasty disease, it damages the valves quite severely and it's quite hard work to get the valves repaired and good enough."
It's first time Finucane has spoken out publically over the continuing rise of the preventable third world disease rampant amongst Maori and Pacific Island children.
"It's just trying to get across the message to people what a devastating thing it is once we end up with a child that's actually got damaged valves and needs surgery, and will need on-going cardiac follow-ups for the rest of their lives. It's a big deal." Finucane said.
Finucane allowed Marae Investigates' cameras to film her performing open heart surgery on 13-year-old Northland boy Michael Paraha, whose heart disease was only picked up by chance through a one-off Heart Foundation echocardiogram survey in Kaitaia in 2010. His, and 19 other children's, rheumatic fever had gone undiagnosed.
While the graphic footage may have shocked some, Marae Investigates Producer Raewyn Rasch said the programme and the patient's family had chosen to air it to bring home the harsh realities of the damage rheumatic fever can have.
The patient's Kaitaia GP, Dr Lance O'Sullivan was part of the team that picked up Paraha's rheumatic heart disease two years ago.
"If we hadn't of picked him up he would've been seeing me in 5-10 years time problems breathing heart swollen because it's not functioning properly," he said.
The GP also watched the surgery.
He told Marae Investigates: "I came down here to see it so I could actually burn into my heart what were trying to stop, which is, kids needing to get on the operating table. We shouldn't be operating on these kids we should be preventing it happening in the first place."
O'Sullivan said the rise of rheumatic heart disease in poor communities has been ignored by health authorities for 30 years.
"We've got to get into these communities where we've got high risk, we're missing a tonne of kids that've got rheumatic heart disease."
The Ministry of Health said at this stage it is unclear what role echocardiography will play in addressing the complications of rheumatic fever, but research is being undertaken to help determine this.