The occasion of World Hepatitis Day, observed on July 28 each year, signifies the need to spread awareness about the diseases caused by viral hepatitis, and necessitates a call to urge people to get tested, immunized, and help stall new infections.
Earlier today, in a statement issued from the US headquarters of Hepatitis Foundation International in Silver Spring, Maryland, CEO and chairman of the organization Thelma King Thiel said that: “We have the power to prevent new hepatitis infections and we need people to take action.”
Thiel said that there are several ways to prevent hepatitis infection such as immunization and withdrawing from risky behaviors like enticing people at risk to get infected by sharing needles, toothbrushes, and razors.
The term Hepatitis literally means inflammation of the liver, and several factors such as drugs, alcohol, autoimmune disorders, and viruses are responsible for the disease. Even while there are numerous viruses that result in liver inflammation, viral hepatitis is a term that is used specifically for viruses that attack the liver directly, the most common ones being A, B, and C.
The worldwide burden of hepatitis to the credit of these three virus types is massive. According to estimates by the Hepatitis Foundation International:
• 1.4 million new cases of hepatitis A are identified each year
• 2 billion people worldwide are infected with hepatitis B
• 130 million people worldwide are chronically infected with hepatitis C
Although increased awareness and improved hygiene have considerably reduced the incidence of hepatitis A in the US, chronic hepatitis C and hepatitis B infections continue to persist.
In a recent statement made by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), officials said that approximately 75% of the infected Americans do not realize that they have been infected because it can be years or decades before symptoms surface; therefore, they are not receiving the required the care and treatment.
This is a matter of grave concern because hepatitis B and C can progress to severe liver disease overtime, including cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. As “Baby Boomers” who have been infected decades ago reach advanced stages of disease, the rates of these two conditions are on the rise in the US.
In its action plan, “Combating the Silent Epidemic: US Department of Health and Human Services Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis” issued in May 2011, the DHHS addressed the issue and described it as a “silent epidemic” affecting 3.5-5.3 million Americans.
According to the DHHS, the problem of infected people not realizing that they were infected worsened because of the lack of trained health care providers who did not have the skills or tools to evaluate risks, offer prevention counseling, or diagnose and treat viral hepatitis. Howard K Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health, described the action plan as “unprecendented,” and said that it called for working towards better education, treatment and prevention.
Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr Thomas R Frieden, said that the required action cannot be accomplished by a single government agency and collective efforts across governments are required to take “prevention efforts to the next level”.
He urged that: “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.”
Earlier today, the Hepatitis Foundation International reinforced the urgency of this message, and particularly the need to “identify the large at-risk population of Baby Boomers, who are likely unaware of their infection.” They advised people to take the following steps to prevent hepatitis:
• Get tested: contact your local public health department or your doctor to find out how.
• Get vaccinated: hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines are available.
• Get educated: learn the value of your liver, how it is key to health, avoid drugs and alcohol and limit intake of fatty and unhealthy foods.