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Finally, U.S. Takes Aim at Viral Hepatitis

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In a newly released action plan, eight strategies are outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to battle our nation’s viral hepatitis epidemic.

Known as the silent epidemic, there is a pronounced lack of symptoms associated with most types of hepatitis. As such, a majority of Americans are unaware that they have viral hepatitis – and the health danger that puts them in. Thankfully, after several reports indicating the need for a public health campaign on viral hepatitis, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has acknowledged this omission and has outlined a plan for improving viral hepatitis awareness, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

The Silent Epidemic

Viral hepatitis can be compared to a buried minefield, full of live explosives that could be unearthed at any moment. People may not know they exist, but the minefields are primed to blow. Despite being a leading infectious cause of death, viral hepatitis remains virtually unknown to:

  • the general public
  • at-risk populations
  • policymakers
  • some healthcare providers

Regrettably, most of the estimated four to five million Americans living with some form of viral hepatitis do not know they are infected. This ignorance places these individuals at an alarmingly high risk of passing their illness on to others and to developing severe or even fatal complications.

Some of the facts demonstrating the scope of this problem include:

  • According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, up to 75 percent of those infected with viral hepatitis are unaware of their infection.
  • Usually caused by the Hepatitis B or the Hepatitis C virus, viral hepatitis is a leading cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer in the United States.
  • Viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver transplantation in the United States.
  • In the absence of treatment, an estimated 15 to 40 percent of those with viral hepatitis are expected to develop serious liver disease, such as cirrhosis or cancer in the next 10 years.
  • A 2007 survey of almost 200 primary care providers found that more than half could not identify laboratory markers of chronic Hepatitis B.

Policymaker Recognition

The new initiative announced by the U.S. Department of Health likely gained momentum from a 2010 Institute of Medicine study finding that Hepatitis B and C are not widely recognized as serious public health problems. The investigators in this Institute of Medicine study found that there was a great need to increase viral hepatitis awareness, to improve surveillance for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C and to better integrate how viral hepatitis is addressed. As is the case with most demands to improve our quality of life, all of these needs require adequate resources to come to fruition.

In a statement by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control director Thomas R. Frieden, “Far too many Americans are unaware of the serious impact of viral hepatitis and the devastating consequences that can result from leaving it untreated. The time for action is now.”

The 2011 Action Plan

As outlined in the 2011 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Action Plan for the Prevention, Care & Treatment of Viral Hepatitis, the following goals were set:

  • Increase the percentage of patients infected with Hepatitis B who are aware of their disease status from one-third to two-thirds by the year 2020.
  • Increase the percentage of patients infected with Hepatitis C who are aware of their disease status from 45 percent to 66 percent by the year 2020.
  • Decrease the number of new cases of Hepatitis C by 25 percent by the year 2020.
  • Eliminate the transmission of Hepatitis B from mothers to infants by the year 2020.

Eight strategies to reduce the burden of viral hepatitis were outlined in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiative. They include:

  1. Ensuring that infected individuals are identified earlier in the disease course.
  2. Improving testing infrastructure to increase early diagnosis.
  3. Improving provider education about screening, diagnostic tests and up-to-date treatments.
  4. Increasing the utilization of health information technology to ensure that those infected receive timely referrals and supportive care.
  5. Providing comprehensive hepatitis education and prevention programs to the public.
  6. Setting up monitoring systems to determine the adequacy of testing and treatment programs, and to ensure that disparities in care are removed.
  7. Providing post-exposure Hepatitis B prophylaxis to all neonates born to infected mothers.
  8. Achieving universal Hepatitis A and B vaccination among vulnerable populations.

According to Health Resources and Services Administrator Mary K. Wakefield, RN, PhD, “This action plan is our best chance at stopping the disease with increased access to information and quality care for those at risk and those who are already infected.”

Allocation of our nation’s resources is essential for making the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan successful. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources is banking on policy-related support brought about by the Affordable Care Act. Wherever the funding for these eight important strategies is found, this initiative represents the most serious and comprehensive attempt to tackle the viral hepatitis epidemic – our best hope for disarming the minefields waiting to wreck havoc on the livers of millions of Americans.

References:, Hepatitis Awareness Needed!, Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., Retrieved May 29, 2011, Hepatitis
Central, 2011., Combating the Silent Epidemic of Viral Hepatitis, Retrieved May 29, 2011, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011., HHS Launches Action Plan to Target Hepatitis, Nancy Walsh, Retrieved May 29, 2011, Everyday Health, Inc., 2011.

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