Congress has an opportunity this year to make a real impact against hepatitis, a disease that the Department of Health and Human Services has called a “silent epidemic.”
More than 5 million Americans, or about 2 percent of the population, are chronically infected with hepatitis B, hepatitis C or both. Even worse, it is estimated that between 65 and 75 percent of those living with viral hepatitis are unaware of their infection.
Hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections are among the most common causes of serious liver disease. The CDC estimates that more than 30 percent of infected individuals will develop cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease or liver cancer; and in 2007, hepatitis C surpassed HIV as a major cause of mortality in the U.S. Without effective intervention, it is estimated that deaths due to the hepatitis C virus will double or even triple in the next 20 years.
Because symptoms often do not appear for years, or even decades, patients often do not take precautions that can prevent the inadvertent spread of these viruses to others. Between 2008 and 2012 alone, the CDC estimates that nearly 100,000 people were potentially exposed to viral hepatitis in health care settings.
Hepatitis C is especially rampant among baby boomers. Americans who were born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to be infected. Because of this, the CDC has recommended that all baby boomers get a one-time test for hepatitis C.
Now, more than ever, there is renewed hope for patients living with hepatitis – and hope for possibly eradicating these epidemics. Early diagnosis, determined through simple and quick diagnostic testing, can reduce the spread of these viruses by connecting patients with treatments and educating them about the risks of transmission. While medications and patient behavioral changes can slow the progression of hepatitis B, health care advances have now led to innovative treatments that can cure hepatitis C faster and with fewer side effects.
The CDC and U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) have already done their part to promote testing. Both have recommended hepatitis C screening for at-risk groups, while the USPSTF has also recommended hepatitis B screening for pregnant women.
Now it’s up to Congress to make hepatitis awareness a national priority.
The Viral Hepatitis Testing Act – legislation currently pending before the House of Representatives – would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to create a national system that promotes hepatitis B and C testing and treatment, as well as education for both the public and health care professionals.
By making the fight against hepatitis a public health priority, the Viral Hepatitis Testing Act seeks to increase the number of individuals who are aware of their hepatitis infections to 75 percent in just two years. The legislation would also bolster the infrastructure to ensure patients who test positive get connected with the health care and counseling they need.
Success in the battle against these infectious diseases requires swift action at the federal level. We need public education that empowers at-risk groups to know their hepatitis status, protect their loved ones, seek appropriate treatment and, in the case of hepatitis C, get cured.
Ninburg is the executive director of the Hepatitis Education Project, which is committed to providing support, education, advocacy and direct services for people affected by hepatitis and to helping raise hepatitis awareness. The Hepatitis Education Project is part of a coalition of patient groups sponsoring a free viral hepatitis screening today on Capitol Hill.