Every 30 seconds a person dies from a hepatitis-related illness. That startling statistic underscores the urgency to test, treat and cure people with viral hepatitis, who often face dangerous delays.
Lack of Testing
Approximately half of people living with hepatitis C don’t know they have the virus. For hepatitis B, that number jumps to nearly seven in 10 people.
This lack of knowledge is due, in part, to being asymptomatic. People who don’t experience classic symptoms – extreme fatigue, abdominal pain or jaundice of the eyes or skin, for example – are unlikely to seek testing. But not knowing their status allows people to spread the virus unknowingly.
This is one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends “universal” testing. Federal guidelines state that everyone 18 or older, as well as pregnant women, get tested for hepatitis C. Despite this recommendation, not a single state law exists to encourage it.
California’s legislature is considering a bill that would require health care facilities to offer patients hepatitis B and C testing, which would make California the first state to adopt an initiative to significantly expand testing.
Barriers to Treatment
While testing is the first step on the path toward treatment, knowing one has hepatitis hardly guarantees access to treatment.
Hepatitis C can be cured in a few months thanks to direct-acting antivirals. But rather than beginning curative treatment upon diagnosis, patients in seven state Medicaid programs must instead wait until their condition has progressed to the point of liver damage. And more than a dozen states require that patients meet sobriety standards before becoming eligible for the cure.
Restrictions like these not only harm patients, but also sidetrack efforts to eliminate hepatitis C.
There are five types of hepatitis – A, B, C, D and E. Each causes inflammation of the liver. In the United States, hepatitis B and C represent most new cases and are the two types collectively responsible for the country’s increasing rates of liver cancer and premature death.
The duration of the disease depends in part upon when it is contracted. Upward of 90% of infants who get hepatitis from their mom at birth will develop chronic infection. In contrast, many adults who contract hepatitis B will experience only short-term illness. Regardless, the best way to prevent hepatitis B is through vaccination.
World Hepatitis Day, July 28, provides an opportunity for policymakers to consider forward-thinking approaches that can cure patients and prevent others from contracting the virus.
From newborn to baby boomer, every person deserves the opportunity to live free of hepatitis.