July 28 marked World Hepatitis Day—a day to reflect on the impact viral hepatitis has on millions of lives around the world and celebrate the progress we’ve made in preventing and treating millions more. Viral hepatitis is among the top 10 infectious disease killers and the leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis. Preventing and treating viral hepatitis is one of the largest public health challenges both here at home and around the world.
Viral hepatitis has yet to receive the same attention as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, even though it has a similar prevalence around the world. Global viral hepatitis prevention and control efforts have been only partially successful to date, hampered by a fragmented and uneven approach. With education and vaccines, many cases of viral hepatitis can be prevented. And with new curative treatments, we are now at a time when the burden of viral hepatitis could be significantly transformed.
The U.S. Government has provided substantial assistance since the 1980s to the global control of viral hepatitis, including supporting World Health Organization programs, funding to support hepatitis B immunization programs, and participating in the Global Hepatitis Program. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief supports programs for safe medical injections, transfusions, and behavioral risk reduction to reduce the transmission of both viral hepatitis and HIV in many countries. However, significant work remains. Viral hepatitis, particularly hepatitis B and C, can be easily transmitted and infected persons often show no symptoms until the disease is in advanced stages many years later when the virus has caused other complications, such as liver cancer. Astonishingly, up to 75% of people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. Viral hepatitis is known as the “silent killer”; knowing your status is important so treatment can start to prevent further liver damage and transmission. In addition, making healthy lifestyle choices can lower the risk of becoming infected with viral hepatitis or transmitting it to others.
The U.S. Government is actively working toward increasing surveillance of viral hepatitis, strengthening immunization strategies, advocating for all governments to take action to prevent, diagnose and treat viral hepatitis, and reducing the stigma against people living with or affected by viral hepatitis. The updated U.S. Viral Hepatitis Action Plan [PDF 2.01MB] has more than 150 actions by 20 different federal agencies in six priority areas: education; improved testing; strengthened surveillance; stopping transmission of vaccine-preventable hepatitis; reducing intravenous drug use-related new infections; and infection control in healthcare settings. In May 2014 the United States supported the adoption of the World Health Assembly resolution on viral hepatitis [PDF 151KB] and we look forward to building on the progress made thus far.
As reflected in the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan and the World Health Assembly resolution, a multisectoral approach is crucial to combating viral hepatitis, and support from civil society is an integral aspect driving toward elimination of viral hepatitis. We look forward to continued progress against this global challenge.