May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, and May 19 marks the fifth national Hepatitis Testing Day in the United States. American Indians and Alaska Native people have the highest rates of both acute Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and HCV-related mortality in the United States.
These observances represent important opportunities to promote hepatitis testing and improve outcomes for the estimated 3.4 million to 5.3 million people living with viral hepatitis in the U.S., many of whom do not know they are infected. Chronic Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and HCV infection can lead to serious liver disease, liver cancer and even death if undiagnosed and untreated. In the United States, nearly 3 million persons are chronically infected with Hepatitis C, and up to 75 percent of patients do not realize they are infected.
Indian Health Service (IHS) screening rates have more than tripled in the past few years, although we have many more patients to reach. A recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes this success in detail. The report highlights the outstanding work that IHS facilities are doing to improve access to life-saving Hepatitis C screening and quality medical care. Congratulations to the many Indian Health system facilities that are already offering widespread HCV screening of our patient population.
Hepatitis Awareness Month offers an important opportunity to generate greater awareness of viral hepatitis as a critical health concern. More widespread understanding about how to prevent, diagnose and treat viral hepatitis is essential if we are to prevent new infections and poor health outcomes among those living with viral hepatitis. There are medications available to cure chronic HCV, including effective new treatments that have fewer side effects than previous options.
Here are some opportunities to get involved and spread the word:
- Take a five-minute online hepatitis risk assessment and encourage others to do so.
- Learn more about the ABCs of viral hepatitis and share the information with family and friends or via your social media networks using #HepAware.
- Download and distribute information from CDC on Hepatitis C.
IHS is committed to helping communities use all effective tools to stop the spread of Hepatitis C and reduce deaths associated with the disease.
As IHS Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Susan V. Karol (Tuscarora Nation) provides medical advice and guidance to the Office of the Director and staff on American Indian and Alaska Native health care policies and issues. She serves as the primary liaison and advocate for IHS field clinical programs and community-based health professionals.