Few diseases have experienced such a remarkable change in their epidemiology over the past century, without the influence of a vaccine, than rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever has all but disappeared from industrialised countries after being a frequent problem in the 1940s and 1950s. That the disease still occurs at high incidence in resource limited settings and in Indigenous populations in industrialised countries, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, is an indication of the profound effect of socio-economic factors on the disease. Although there have been major changes in the epidemiology of rheumatic fever, diagnosis remains reliant on careful clinical judgement and management is remarkably similar to that 50 years ago. Over the past decade, increasing attention has been given to rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease as public health issues, including in Australia and particularly in New Zealand, as well as in selected low and middle income countries. Perhaps the greatest hope for public health control of rheumatic fever is the development of a vaccine against Streptococcus pyogenes, and there are encouraging initiatives in this area. However, an effective vaccine is some time away and in the meantime public health efforts need to focus on effective translation of the known evidence around primary and secondary prophylaxis into policy and practice.