In an uncertain world, viral hepatitis is one problem we can solve

These days, it feels like there’s no shortage of threats. Fears of national security breaches, terrorism, global warming and more all play in surround sound in the media and on Capitol Hill.

With all of these dangers dominating the news cycle and the congressional calendar, it’s easy to forget the silent threats that also deserve our attention. One of these noiseless threats is viral hepatitis.

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Viral hepatitis isn’t in on the evening news every day, but it kills more Americans every year than HIV and all other infectious diseases combined — and it’s on the rise.

 

An estimated five million people are living with hepatitis B or hepatitis C in the United States. The diseases, which cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and liver failure, directly lead to 21,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Viral hepatitis is also the leading cause of liver cancer —the fastest-growing cause of cancer mortality in the U.S. which kills twice as many Americans now than it did in the 1980s.

Not only is viral hepatitis killing more people; it’s also spreading.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released new data highlighting disturbing increases in new hepatitis B and C infections. The number of reported acute hepatitis B cases increased by more than 20 percent in 2015, while acute hepatitis C infections nearly tripled from 2010 to 2015 — a 15-year high. Another CDC study shows that estimated rates of hepatitis C infection among pregnant women in the United States have nearly doubled from 2009 to 2014.

Yet, unlike more existential threats facing our nation, there is a clear and nonpartisan way for us to make progress against viral hepatitis.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine now say in no uncertain terms that the U.S. can eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. But the National Academies were also clear in their announcement, made in March, that it will take sufficient federal funding and leadership for a coordinated effort to manage hepatitis B and C infections and transmission.

And it’s more than monitoring and treating Americans who are infected; we also need to take steps to prevent infections in the first place. In this area, one of the keys is addressing the connection between the opioid epidemic and viral hepatitis. For example, most new hepatitis C infections are occurring in young people who inject drugs. Stronger support for syringe access programs and opioid agonist therapy services are a necessary piece of the puzzle to prevent new viral hepatitis infections. 

The good news is that members of Congress, liver disease experts and viral hepatitis patients are meeting this week to discuss an action plan. In addition, members of Congress are already at work on the fiscal year 2018 Health and Human Services budget, where they will have an opportunity to appropriate funding to truly address the epidemic.

As the National Academies points out, more funding is sorely needed. The $34 million our country currently spends to address viral hepatitis pales in comparison to the $308 million that the CDC says it needs to adequately address elimination goals.

Viral hepatitis may be a silent threat, but at least we know how to confront it — and in doing so, we will save thousands of lives each year and achieve one of the greatest public health victories in our lifetimes. 

Ryan Clary is the executive director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR), a coalition working to fight, and ultimately end, the hepatitis B and C epidemics in the United States.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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