Every year, on July 28th, we commemorate World Hepatitis Day and elevate the public health response to a disease that impacts more than 400 million people globally. It has been an honor to serve as Assistant Secretary of Health (ASH) at the US Department of Health and Human Services for the past five years. This Wednesday, July 30, I’ll join US and international leaders to commemorate World Hepatitis Day at the White House. It is fitting that my last public appearance as ASH will be this worldwide observance where we will discuss the global impact of viral hepatitis and the importance of public health leadership with senior federal officials and community leaders including:
• Ambassador Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Ambassador
• Michael Botticelli, Acting Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
• Douglas Brooks, Director, White House Office of National AIDS Policy
• Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, Director, HIV Department, World Health Organization
• Dr. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health
Please join us via live stream from 12:00 PM – 2:30 PM (Eastern) at www.whitehouse.gov/live. You can also join the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #WorldHepatitisDay.
Here in the United States, up to 5.3 million people are living with viral hepatitis – and most don’t know it. Many people with viral hepatitis have no symptoms until they are very sick, and many health care providers are unaware of this dangerous disease, so it has been called a “silent epidemic.”
Viral hepatitis disproportionately impacts ethnic and racial minorities. One in 12 Asian Americans is living with hepatitis B and the prevalence of hepatitis C among African Americans is estimated to be double that among whites.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer and most common reason for liver transplant in the US. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society , liver cancer is the second deadliest cancer in the US. These deaths do not have to occur. In my time as ASH, public health leaders have joined together and committed to a response to viral hepatitis – and this incredible effort is already making a difference in people’s lives.
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine released the report, Hepatitis and Liver Cancer: A National Strategy for Prevention and Control of Hepatitis B and C . Soon after, I convened a government working group to develop a national response to this epidemic.
In 2011, HHS released the first nation’s first comprehensive federal action plan, the Action Plan for the Prevention, Care, & Treatment of Viral Hepatitis, and in April 2014, an updated plan for 2014-2016 was released. Recognizing that addressing viral hepatitis will require active involvement from a broad mix of stakeholders, the new plan offers more ways to encourage this critical type of collaboration. Learn about actions you can take right now in the Stakeholders’ Workbook. The action plan has contributed to the growing momentum in the field and provides a framework and focus around which all key stakeholders can engage to strengthen the nation’s response.
And, of course, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, improved diagnostic tests, and groundbreaking treatments, we now have more opportunities than ever to break the silence around viral hepatitis. Medicare now provides free hepatitis C testing for persons born from 1945 to 1965, a group that has five times higher rates of the disease than others. And recent recommendations by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) mean hepatitis B blood tests will be free under most health plans, because the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover screening tests that receive an “A” or “B” grade from the USPSTF.
We’ve come a long way in laying the foundation to address this deadly disease. As I complete my tenure as ASH, I am moved by the public health legacy around viral hepatitis that has developed during my time in office. The leadership that I envision to continue on with this important work is one that innovates, integrates and inspires others to serve and to help us realize the goals of the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan. Join us on July 30th and learn more about viral hepatitis, public health leadership and the global response we must create together to stop this epidemic.
Follow Dr. Howard K. Koh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@HHS_DrKoh