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Education, Prevention and the Eradication of Hepatitis | Commentary

Today, there are nearly 6 million Americans living with hepatitis B and C, yet many people don’t know what these viruses are — or how deadly they can be. Nearly three-fourths of the infected population doesn’t even know they have the disease. That’s the bad news. The good news is that with robust education, research and prevention efforts, we can rid this country, and the world, of this debilitating virus. The first step is to make sure people know the health risks from hepatitis B and C are entirely preventable.

Let me say that again: the liver diseases, cirrhosis and cancer caused by the hepatitis B and C viruses are completely preventable.

What we need is a robust plan to educate people about the disease, to prevent further cases and eventually eradicate the world of this disease.

That will take an investment, but it’s one we must make. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 800,000 people living with hepatitis C are at the highest-priority level for immediate treatment. The costs of that treatment will only escalate if we don’t act now. And for me, personally, as the chairman emeritus of the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus, it is especially concerning that 1 in 10 Asian-Americans is infected with hepatitis.

What would an investment from the federal government mean? It would mean that we could enforce the federal law of testing every child, which right now is left to the states to administer voluntarily. It’s why I work so diligently in Silicon Valley to have larger medical facilities enact screening and education programs.

It would mean fewer cases of transmission, especially from mother to child. And as we’ve seen with other infectious diseases, such as HIV and AIDS, it would reduce the burden on our health care system when they are diagnosed in the early stages.

There is a clear correlation between education and prevention. With public education and public health efforts, we can help people become aware of the disease, its often deadly effects and how important it is to be tested if you are part of an at-risk population.

With fewer individuals carrying hepatitis — and more individuals identified — our treatment efforts will be much less expensive. As it stands, treatment of hepatitis places an estimated $85 billion burden on Medicare if we do nothing more. And with the list of people in need of a liver transplant growing at the United Network for Organ Sharing, we can reduce the number of individuals in need of a transplant. Tragically, hepatitis B and C are currently the leading causes of liver cancer and need for transplant.

With the preservation of life and resources saved through education and prevention, we will have a greater possibility to invest in research and development at the CDC. We would be able to promote testing and connect people with the care they need, stop the emerging hepatitis epidemic and strengthen the capabilities of our public health officials to provide the care people living with hepatitis need.

The time to act is now. From 2010 to 2013 alone, we saw an increase in hepatitis C cases in the United States, and a staggering 300 percent increase in the Appalachia region. Communities of color are disproportionately affected, and these are often some of the lower-income communities in our country where education and outreach is most needed.

This is a common-sense measure to address the silent killer of our age. With effective investment, we can increase the number of individuals who are aware of their status from 25 percent to 75 percent in just two years. Early diagnosis is the key, and tracking the spread of disease is a part of that effort. Right now, only 13 states have data collection that tracks hepatitis A, B and C, and the CDC does not have enough funding to reach more than five states and two cities to assist in enhanced surveillance efforts.

The time for this conversation in this country is now to ensure we don’t have a massive public health crisis on our hands in the near future. And the time for investment is now to increase surveillance capabilities, reach everyone who needs to be tested, and eventually, prevent and rid America of this entirely manageable disease.

Rep. Michael M. Honda is a Democrat from California.

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