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Hepatitis — The Silent Epidemic

8/7/2013, noon
Liver cancer caused by Hepatitis B

Disparities in healthcare access, health outcomes, and certain chronic diseases have been well documented for African Americans in comparison with non-Hispanic whites. There is a new silent epidemic on the scene affecting African Americans related to common blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) that has garnered little attention.  Worldwide, 500 million people are living with either chronic hepatitis B or C. Although this is far higher than the prevalence of HIV or any cancer, hepatitis is often ignored, awareness is inexplicably low, and the majority of those infected are often unaware and can unknowingly transmit the virus to other people.

Each year 80,000 new infections of viral hepatitis viruses A, B, C, D and E occur. While it is a leading infectious cause of death for an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans each year, viral hepatitis remains virtually unknown to the public and more specifically for at risk populations, including African Americans.

Hepatitis, defined as inflammation of the liver, is most often caused by a virus and the most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is more prevalent among African Americans than among persons of any other racial group in the United States. However, little data is available on the history and treatment of hepatitis C for African Americans.  All three of these viruses cause severe short term hepatitis infections. Symptoms for all types of viral hepatitis can include one or more of the following:

Fever

Fatigue

Loss of appetite

Nausea

Vomiting

Abdominal pain

Joint pain

Jaundice

The hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus can also cause chronic hepatitis, in which the infection becomes lifelong. Chronic hepatitis can lead to scarring of the liver also know as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Furthermore, viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver cancer and can ultimately lead to liver transplantation. Many people who are infected with chronic viral hepatitis often have no symptoms. In fact, people can be infected with chronic viral hepatitis and not feel or show symptoms for upwards to 20 or 30 years. When and if symptoms appear, they are similar to severe infection and can be a sign of serious liver damage.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone who has been exposed to blood through blood transfusion, non-sterile equipment, tattooing, or sharing a needle while injecting illegal drugs should be tested for both hepatitis B and C. The hepatitis C recommendations propose all U.S. baby boomers, those born between1945 and 1965 get a blood test to determine if they are infected with hepatitis C. The hepatitis B vaccine provides excellent protection against hepatitis B infection and the vaccine is covered at no cost under Medicare Part B for certain eligible individuals at high or intermediate risk.

Patient advocacy groups such as Hepatitis Foundation International (HFI), and agencies across the federal government are working together to implement the Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis. The plan’s main goals include: increase the proportion of Americans who are aware of their viral hepatitis infection; reduce the number of new cases of hepatitis C infection; and eliminate mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B.

The Hepatitis Foundation International (www.HepatitisFoundation.org) is a 501 c 3 non-profit organization established in 1994 dedicated to promoting health and wellness, reducing the incidence of preventable liver-related chronic diseases and lifestyles that negatively impact the liver, including obesity, diabetes, hepatitis, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease and fatty/liver cancer.