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Elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health threat possible

With the right tools, targeted public health campaigns can save lives around the world.

For proof, look no further than the effort to eradicate the Guinea worm – a parasitic infection spread by contaminated drinking water that causes severe pain which makes it difficult to walk or work. Thirty years ago, in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm around the world. Today, the disease has been nearly eradicated.

{mosads}That’s no accident. Led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the world waged an effective global education and public health campaign to eradicate the Guinea worm.

We should use the lessons we’ve learned from campaigns like this one to tackle viral hepatitis – a significantly more widespread and severe disease.

Globally, an estimated 240 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV), and an estimated 150 million are chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV).

Closer to home, in the United States, an estimated 2.2 million people are chronically infected with HBV, and an estimated 2.7 million are chronically infected with HCV.

These viruses are as deadly as they are common. In 2015 viral hepatitis killed more than 1.4 million people around the world, including more than 20,000 in the U.S.

The stakes in this fight are clear, particularly because this disease is preventable.

Recently, the World Health Organization released its “Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis,” which identified a path toward eliminating viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030.

The report comes to a powerful conclusion: we can eliminate this disease as a public health threat with the tools we currently have. Effective vaccines, new treatments, and other interventions available today can help us eliminate hepatitis. But we have more work to do.

Take hepatitis B, for example. While both treatable and preventable, HBV remains undetected in most people who have the virus, despite causing 80 percent of all primary liver cancer cases in the United States. Liver cancer is the second-deadliest cancer in our country.

Five percent of all Americans will become infected with HBV, including nearly ten percent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). AAPIs make up more than half of all HBV carriers in our country, and therefore suffer from the highest rate of liver cancer among all ethnic groups.

Given that an estimated 25 percent of HBV carriers will die from liver cancer or liver failure caused by this preventable virus, we must eliminate it.

The World Health Organization’s report lays out important interventions that countries around the world can take to eliminate the disease.

Building on this strategy, the recently launched “NOhep” campaign helps raise awareness about this effort around the world.

These are positive developments, but only the first step toward eliminating viral hepatitis as a public health threat around the world.

In the meantime, we can take additional steps to fight viral hepatitis in the U.S.

As we commemorate World Hepatitis Day on July 28, 2016, we can commit to taking these three steps:

First, make sure that people get tested for viral hepatitis so that we can detect it in our communities.

Second, increase access to vaccines and treatments, and make them affordable for people of all incomes.

Third, expand research to develop new cures. Currently, there is no cure for hepatitis B.

Put simply—better detection, more vaccines and treatments, and new cures will save millions of lives.

Like the Guinea worm, which once threatened millions of people in thousands of communities around the world, viral hepatitis can be eliminated as a public health threat.

The only question is: do we have the will and determination to succeed?


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