During February's observance of African American History Month, please join us in working to end the unfortunate history of viral hepatitis' disproportionate impact on the African American community. This Administration is working hard to reduce and eliminate health disparities and achieve health equity.
Unfortunately, viral hepatitis is a health problem that is often overlooked by the public as well as healthcare providers. This, despite the fact that viral hepatitis is a leading infectious cause of death, claiming the lives of 12,000-15,000 Americans each year. As many as 5.3 million Americans are living with viral hepatitis, though most do not know that they are infected. This places them at greater risk for severe, even fatal, complications from the disease and increases the likelihood that they will spread the virus to others.
What Is Hepatitis?
"Hepatitis" means inflammation of the liver. It is most often caused by a virus. In the U.S., the most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. All of these viruses cause acute, or short-term, viral hepatitis. But the hepatitis B and C viruses (HBV and HCV) can also cause chronic hepatitis, in which the infection is prolonged, sometimes lifelong. Chronic hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. In fact, viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation.
Viral Hepatitis Disparities
Within the African American community, significant hepatitis-related health disparities exist. For example:
- Hepatitis B can be prevented by a vaccine; however, African American children have lower HBV vaccination rates than non-Hispanic white children.
- Since 2004, rates of hepatitis B have remained steady among all racial/ethnic populations. However, new infections of hepatitis B remain the highest among African Americans, with 2.3 cases per 100,000 people.
- African Americans are twice as likely to be infected with hepatitis C when compared with the general U.S. population and chronic liver disease, often hepatitis C-related, is a leading cause of death among African Americans ages 45-64.
- While African Americans represent only 12% of the U.S. population, they make up about 22% of the chronic hepatitis C cases. In fact, African Americans have a substantially higher rate of chronic hepatitis C infection than do Caucasians and other ethnic groups.
Viral Hepatitis Action Plan
My Federal colleagues and I are committed to ensuring that new cases of viral hepatitis are prevented and that persons who are already infected are tested; informed about their infection; and provided with counseling, care, and treatment. In fact, last year we issued Combating the Silent Epidemic of Viral Hepatitis: Action Plan for the Prevention, Care & Treatment of Viral Hepatitis (PDF 672KB), which outlined robust and dynamic steps that are now underway across the government to increase viral hepatitis awareness and knowledge among health care providers and communities, and improve access to quality prevention, care, and treatment services for viral hepatitis. (Read more about the Action Plan.)
In addition, the Viral Hepatitis Action Plan is both supported by and complements several other initiatives unfolding within HHS and across the Federal government, including the:
- The National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which helps us address the significant rates of HIV-HCV coinfection;
- The National Prevention Strategy, which calls for us to enhance early detection of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other sexually transmitted infections and improve linkage to care;
- The U.S. National Vaccine Plan, which will help us reduce the incidence of vaccine-preventable hepatitis A and B;
- The HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities; and
- The infectious disease and immunization objectives of Healthy People 2020, which specifically seek to reduce new hepatitis A, B, and C infections and increase viral hepatitis awareness among infected persons.
Your Help Is Essential
These are all part of our response to the silent epidemic of viral hepatitis. But we need your help, too. So, during African American History Month, please help by learning more about viral hepatitis, educating family and friends about this silent killer in the African American community, and encouraging conversations with healthcare providers about vaccinations for hepatitis A and B and screening for hepatitis C for those who may have been exposed.
Together, we can make viral hepatitis history.
J. Nadine Gracia, M.D., M.S.C.E., is acting director of the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.