Hepatitis means liver inflammation.

While deaths from HIV are decreasing worldwide, new infections with and deaths from chronic viral hepatitis are unfortunately rising, despite effective vaccines, diagnostic tests and therapeutics. Viral hepatitis is associated with substantial health consequences, stigma and discrimination, taking a large toll on individuals and communities. Collectively, it costs us billions of dollars annually. Three most common Hepatitis viruses impacting the health and welfare of the U.S. are Hepatitis A, B and C, which affect millions of Americans from all social, economic, racial and ethnic groups.

Our National Viral Hepatitis Plan, developed collaboratively by federal agencies with public input, sets forth a clear vision for how the U.S. will be a place where new viral hepatitis infections are prevented, every person knows their status, and every person with viral hepatitis has high-quality health care and treatment and lives free from stigma and discrimination. This aims to be a comprehensive, data-driven roadmap to reverse increasing rates of viral hepatitis, prevent new infections, improve care and treatment, and ultimately eliminate viral hepatitis as a U.S. public health threat by 2030.

Success requires active participation and coordinated action from public and private stakeholders. The Wright Center joins this chorus of public health officials and medical providers to promote May as Hepatitis Awareness Month to call public attention to the need for understanding, prevention, testing and treatment of viral Hepatitis.

Hepatitis A causes acute liver injury and illness but not chronic liver disease. It primarily spreads person to person or from ingestion of contaminated water or food. International travelers, those who use illicit drugs, men who have sex with men and homeless populations are at highest risk. Most people recover uneventfully, but some develop fulminant, fatal hepatitis. Hepatitis A vaccine, routinely given to children and unvaccinated, high risk populations, is safe and effective.

Hepatitis B or C infects over 1 million and 2.5 million Americans respectively, most of whom are going about their lives unaware they may have chronic liver disease from a potentially cancer-causing virus. Both Hepatitis B and C are transmitted congenitally, sexually and through intravenous drug use or bloodborne exposure. Both can cause acute and chronic liver disease, as well as liver cancer. Most people with chronic Hepatitis B or C don’t experience symptoms until late stage infection, putting them at risk for severe, even fatal, complications and to unwittingly spread the virus.

Acute Hepatitis B or C infection usually causes minimal, if any, symptoms. Most adults recover uneventfully from acute Hepatitis B which primarily causes chronic infection and cancer in children who acquire it congenitally or in adults with compromised immunity. A safe and effective Hepatitis B vaccine is provided routinely to children and unvaccinated high risk individuals.

Unlike Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C unfortunately most often results in significant chronic liver disease, and no vaccine is currently available. Antiviral therapies are available for both chronic Hepatitis B and C, and Hepatitis C is notably curable.

However, despite 95% cure rates of one 8-12 week course of oral, well-tolerated therapy, Hepatitis C still kills more Americans than any other reportable infectious disease. Because a proportion of people with Hepatitis C report no known risk factors, universal screening is crucial. Although a recent campaign focused on encouraging baby boomers to get tested, most new cases actually occur amongst those aged 20-39 most impacted by the opioid crisis. This validates the CDC’s acknowledgement that Hepatitis C is “heavily impacting multiple generations” and its current recommendation that every adult get tested “at least once in your lifetime.”

Please talk to your primary or specialty healthcare professional regarding your risk for viral hepatitis and/or your need for testing.

The Wright Center for Community Health, a federally qualified health center look alike which operates a growing network of teaching health centers in Northeast Pennsylvania, integrated Hepatitis C treatment into onsite primary care workflow in 2019 in partnership with The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education’s Gastroenterology Fellowship. We recognize the opioid, HIV and Hepatitis C epidemics are closely intertwined. That’s why we integrated our primary medical, mental and behavioral health, addiction and recovery, and infectious disease service lines, allowing for better “whole person” longitudinal care for each patient.

Aligned with The Viral Hepatitis National Plan, The Wright Center’s patient-centered medical homes help to create access for viral hepatitis diagnosis, prevention and treatment, striving to eliminate this public health threat in Northeast Pennsylvania. We need all stakeholders, especially the public, engaged to be successful. Hopefully, our collective efforts this May can generate tangible success for patients, families and our community that we can celebrate on World Hepatitis Day July 28th, which is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who discovered the Hepatitis B virus in 1967 and the first Hepatitis B vaccine two years later.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education as President/CEO. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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