Health Officials Update Viral Hepatitis Action Plan

April 8, 2014
Catherine Kolonko

Federal plan includes new hepatitis C testing recommendations, enhanced hepatitis B education and outreach initiatives, and increased efforts at surveillance to monitor disease transmission, and other components.

Government health officials hope to widen awareness of hepatitis C status among those who have the virus and put a dent in the number of new cases as part of an updated government action plan to combat viral hepatitis.

In a concerted effort, the US Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, and Veterans Affairs recently extended an action plan originally drafted in 2011 for the prevention, care and treatment of viral hepatitis. The plan lays out a number of goals to achieve by the end of the decade related to research, education, treatment, and prevention of viral hepatitis, which is caused by infection of hepatitis A, B, C, D or E.

Government officials hope to build on the progress of goals to combat viral hepatitis that were set in the initial plan of attack in 2011, said Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health - Infectious Diseases, and director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy. Federal agencies agreed last year to renew the plan for another three years given the Affordable Care Act’s expanded access to viral hepatitis prevention, diagnosis, care, and treatment and new developments in medications for hepatitis C.

“In recent years we have made significant progress in addressing these challenges,” Valdiserri said in a statement. “With the new advances in hepatitis C treatment, more widespread availability of safe and effective vaccines for hepatitis A and B, and more opportunities for testing for hepatitis C under the Affordable Care Act, we have arrived at a critical moment. By harnessing these and other developments, we have the potential to reduce the toll of viral hepatitis in the US and save many lives.”

A silent epidemic that affects between 3.5 million to 5.3 million people nationwide, chronic viral hepatitis B and C are treatable diseases that can be prevented, note health officials. Left unchecked, virus from the bloodborne pathogens can lead to liver cancer and is the most common cause for liver transplants in the United States.

In recent months, the FDA has approved medications for hepatitis C that could encourage more people to be tested and seek treatment. In clinical trials, the breakthrough drugs have shortened the length of time patients must take medicine, improved cure rates, and reduced serious side effects.

An estimated 45 percent of people who are infected with hepatitis C know they have the disease and one of the plan’s goals is to increase that proportion to 66 percent by 2020 through more screening efforts and disease awareness initiatives. Officials also have a goal to reduce by 25 percent the number of new cases of hepatitis C infection.

In an HHS blog post about the plan of action, Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health, wrote that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will continue a campaign called for in the initial 2011 action plan to encourage all baby boomers (people born from 1945 to 1965), who as a group are five times more likely than the general population to be infected, to be tested for hepatitis C virus.

Recipients of blood transfusions or organ transplants before July 1992 are at higher risks for being infected with hepatitis C because screening blood for the infection was less common than it is now.

Overall, more than 150 proposed items are slated for action between 2014 and 2016 among 14 federal agencies or offices. In addition, the plan extends outside the government arena and calls for involvement and innovation from a broad mix of both the private and public sector.

The Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis (2014-2016) is available online.