May Is Hepatitis Awareness Month

largeham-sdwMay is Hepatitis Awareness Month and 2016 is an especially important year. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can become chronic, life-long infections which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Millions of Americans are living with chronic viral hepatitis and many, in fact most, do not know that they are infected.

Chronic hepatitis B affects an estimated 1-2 million people in the U.S. and more than 240 million people worldwide. It can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B is more common in people from East Asia, such as China and Korea, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Hepatitis B is acquired through activities that involve contact with infected blood, semen and saliva. Hepatitis B is commonly transmitted sexually, through injection drug use and from sharing common household items such as razors or toothbrushes with an infected person.

Hepatitis B is not spread through food or water, sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, hand holding, coughing or sneezing. Chronic hepatitis B, once discovered, is treatable with safe and effective oral medications. While hepatitis B cannot be cured, treatment dramatically decreases the risk of the development of cirrhosis and liver cancer. New, even safer medications, are likely to be approved later this year for the treatment of hepatitis B.

Hepatitis C is mostly an asymptomatic disease. Of the estimated 3-5 million people with hepatitis C in the U.S., it is estimated that 75 percent were born between 1945-1965. Those born during that period are five times more likely to have hepatitis C and because of this, it is recommended that all people born between those years be checked for chronic hepatitis C.

tdaybadgev1-500x150Hepatitis C can cause liver damage and liver failure and it is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the U.S. The treatment of hepatitis C has advanced rapidly over the past two years with currently available, all oral treatments curing more than 95 percent of patients with the disease with short treatment durations and minimal side effects.

Later this year, even more effective, single tablet regimens which are pan-genotypic will become available. The barrier to treatment and cure of hepatitis C has been access to these new therapies, which are very expensive. This has limited the ability for many people who need treatment to be adequately treated for hepatitis C. The limited access is just wrong.

Luckily, within the past month, the New York State attorney general reached an agreement with seven major insurance providers in New York State to ensure that these companies will pay for these life improving and saving medications for all people with this disease. I thank the attorney general for this work as it will truly improve the lives of many New Yorkers. Hopefully, with increased screening and highly effective treatments, hepatitis C can be eradicated in our lifetime.

May 19 has been designated as national “Hepatitis Testing Day” in the United States. I strongly encourage anyone with potential risks factors for chronic hepatitis B and C, including those born between 1945-1965 to contact their health care provider and get tested.

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David Bernstein
David Bernstein, MD, is a columnist for Long Island Weekly and chief of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

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