On Wednesday, July 30, the White House hosted its fourth consecutive observance of World Hepatitis Day. Co-sponsored by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), the event brought together a diverse group of domestic and global stakeholders and put a spotlight on the progress made in addressing viral hepatitis as well as the work that remains to be done.
Viral hepatitis is a serious public health threat. Globally, close to 500 million people are currently living with chronic viral hepatitis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S., as many as 5 million Americans are estimated to be living with viral hepatitis. Moreover, most of people in the U.S. and around the world living with hepatitis B or C are unaware of their infections and are at increased risk of developing serious complications, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Viral hepatitis kills close to 1.4 million people every year around the world and, as the leading infectious cause of death in the U.S. claims the lives of over 16,000 Americans each year. The annual number of global deaths from hepatitis B and C is soon expected to exceed the number of deaths resulting from HIV.
Mr. Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of ONDCP, observed that the event was an opportunity to “reflect on advances in viral hepatitis prevention and treatment, renew commitments, and raise voices to break the silence, stigma, and silos around this disease.” He also shared the World Hepatitis Day proclamation issued by President Barack Obama.
During the event, leadership and partnership were recurrent themes in remarks by the hosts, featured speakers, and panelists (view the agenda ). Indeed, both leadership and partnership are vital to successful domestic and global efforts to scale up viral hepatitis awareness, prevention, screening, care, and treatment.
In his last public appearance as the Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Howard Koh was praised as a champion for enhancing and expanding the U.S. domestic response to viral hepatitis. The Action Plan for the Prevention, Care, and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis originated from his office in 2011 when he responded to the need for a more coordinated national response to hepatitis B and hepatitis C in the U.S., brought together key partners from across HHS, engaged other federal and non-federal partners, and oversaw the development of a plan that, recently renewed, continues to guide our efforts to improve viral hepatitis awareness, prevention, diagnosis, care, and treatment across the country. Dr. Koh and several speakers also thanked Dr. John Ward, Director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, for his leadership in elevating viral hepatitis as a priority within various programs.
Leadership from many nonfederal sectors was also honored at the event. Twelve domestic and global leaders active in the fight against viral hepatitis received awards during the event for their significant contributions to advancing the response to viral hepatitis.
Underscoring the other key theme of the meeting, Dr. Koh also highlighted the important roles played by many federal and nonfederal partners who have mobilized to collaborate in new ways since the release of the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan. Ms. Christine Harley, Senior Policy Advisor for the WHIAAPI, observed that the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan was not only an important cross-agency effort to combat hepatitis B and C, but also an important tool for use by community, public health, clinical, and other partners. She noted that in the more than three years since its launch, the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan had helped advance the conversation about this important public health issue across sectors.
Similarly, Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, who oversees the WHO’s HIV and viral hepatitis activities, emphasized the need to engage organizations from the grassroots up through policy makers in the response to viral hepatitis at both the country and global levels. To facilitate such engagement, Dr. Hirnschall observed that in April this year, WHO issued its first ever guidelines on treatment of hepatitis C intended for policy-makers, government officials, and others working to develop HCV programs in low- and middle-income countries. Further, in May, World Health Assembly delegates from 194 Member States, “noting with deep concern that viral hepatitis is now responsible for 1.4 million deaths every year,” adopted a resolution to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of viral hepatitis.
Several speakers noted that the HIV community can play a key partnership role in advancing our response to viral hepatitis. Ambassador Deborah Birx, MD, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, concurred, observing that there are lessons learned from the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR on the White House’s YouTube channel.