Ending Hepatitis is Something We Can All Do Every Day
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month and National Hepatitis Testing Day is May 19. Both observances, as the CDC states, “serve as a time to raise awareness of hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C as major public health threats, while encouraging testing to identify the millions of people living with hepatitis who don’t know it.”
COVID-19 has certainly raised the public’s consciousness of the impact of potentially deadly infectious viruses. Until now, most people probably were most familiar with HIV. But there are other infectious viruses of public health consequence. Approximately 5 million Americans are currently living with chronic hepatitis B or chronic hepatitis C. As a person living with chronic hepatitis B, I am all too familiar with the health consequences of hepatitis, the need for testing, treating, and preventing, and the stigma and discrimination often associated with an infectious disease.
While each infectious disease is different, there are apparent commonalities among them. To determine if someone has one, we need screening and testing. To keep people healthy and alive, we need treatments and if we are lucky enough, cures. To prevent future spread, we need ways to prevent them, including vaccinations.
Scientists have developed the tools to test for the various types of viral hepatitis and help people remain healthy. For hepatitis B there are effective treatments, while work is being done on a potential cure. People can now be cured of hepatitis C after two to three months of daily oral treatment. We know how to prevent hepatitis, and for hepatitis A and B there are even vaccines.
You have heard it said before, “We have the tools to end it.” I would add the saying, “Easier said than done.” To end infectious diseases, we always need more scientific advances, but it is going to take a strategic, coordinated, and resourced public health response.
Fortunately, we now have nationalstrategic plans to end several infectious diseases including viral hepatitis, HIV, and STIs. A strength included in all the plans is a reliance on taking a syndemic approach to these often intersecting epidemics. Together we can get to the finish line faster. While each may have separate funding lines, people on the ground do not see the world through those lenses.
When people get tested for HIV, they should also be tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other STIs, and vice versa. Those living with HIV and served by the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, Medicaid, or Medicare should be tested for hepatitis B and hepatitis C, vaccinated if unprotected, and if they also have viral hepatitis, treated and cured, as appropriate.
The Indian Health Service is taking a syndemic approach to ending HIV and hepatitis C in Indian Country with their recent funding announcement. And, as our nation confronts drug addiction and overdose, President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy calls for increased harm reduction programs, including syringe service programs, taking a coordinated approach that acknowledges the benefits of combining HIV and hepatitis prevention, testing, linkage to care, and treatment.
While we highlight May as Hepatitis Awareness Month, and remind people to get tested on May 19th, we should approach our work daily to end viral hepatitis, HIV, STIs, and drug addiction. Only by working together can we meet the goal to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030.