Millions of people in the U.S. have chronic viral hepatitis, most without knowing it, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups have designated May as Hepatitis Awareness Month and May 19 as Hepatitis Testing Day.
“Hepatitis is a silent killer. When you get infected, you often don’t have severe symptoms that make you go to the doctor,” said Dr. John Ward, director of the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination at the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, Georgia.
“Hepatitis B and C can become chronic infections and cause liver damage over time, which can lead to liver cancer,” Ward, who is also a senior scientist at the CDC, said in a phone interview. “It’s important for people to be tested so infections can be caught early before they become a problem.”
Hepatitis B and C are the most common types of viral hepatitis in the U.S., according to the CDC’s announcement, published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2016, about 862,000 people were living with hepatitis B and 2.4 million were living with hepatitis C, despite the availability of a vaccine and treatment for hepatitis B and a cure for hepatitis C.
New cases of hepatitis C tripled during 2010-2016, mostly among young adults, largely attributed to surges in the opioid epidemic and injection-drug use. It can also be spread through exposure to blood in healthcare settings, particularly through blood transfusions given before 1992, and occasionally through sexual contact.
“All Baby Boomers should be tested since they’re at a high risk for unscreened blood before 1992,” Ward said. “But the new threat has also been for young people involved in the opioid crisis with injection use.”
The other form of the disease, caused by the hepatitis A virus, doesn’t have a treatment but is preventable through vaccination. Several states have had outbreaks since 2016 with a large number of cases caused by person-to-person transmission, primarily among those who use drugs or experience homelessness, the announcement notes.
To increase awareness, the CDC is encouraging the public and doctors to "Learn the ABCs" of viral hepatitis, and offering resources and links to find a testing facility nearby (here: bit.ly/2osb65W). If unsure about what to do next, individuals can also take a five-minute online assessment (here: bit.ly/2imA3Ih) to receive a personalized report on hepatitis testing and vaccine recommendations. The assessment is anonymous and asks questions about a history of blood disease, liver disease, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDs, injection drug use, blood transfusions and overseas travel.
Chronic hepatitis is a leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis, with more than 60 percent of liver cancer cases related to hepatitis B or C, the CDC resources highlight.
“Chronic HBV and HCV infections already kill as many people worldwide as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis,” said Dr. David Thomas, director of the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who isn’t involved in the CDC awareness campaign.
By 2040, hepatitis deaths are expected to exceed the combined mortality of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis because there are global programs to eliminate those diseases, he added.
“Get tested. The tests are accurate and can identify a condition that is treatable,” he told Reuters Health by email. “Being cured can save your life and the lives of those around you.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2Q3Fe2f Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, online May 10, 2019.