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Hepatitis B Foundation Calls for Universal Screening for Hepatitis B
All Americans should know their status to eliminate public health threat
DOYLESTOWN, PA (July 26, 2018) In recognition of World Hepatitis Day on July 28, the Hepatitis B Foundation (HBF) is calling for all Americans to be tested for hepatitis B infection. The formal recommendation was approved by HBF’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board to achieve the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ambitious goal of eliminating hepatitis B by the year 2030.
Up to 2.2 million Americans, and more than 292 million people worldwide, are chronically infected with this serious liver disease virus, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Because there are often few symptoms, hepatitis B frequently goes undiagnosed, with experts estimating that only 20-30% are aware of their infection.
“We are making the recommendation to test all adults for hepatitis B because we believe it is the only way to identify those who need care and reduce deaths due to hepatitis B infection,” explains Timothy Block, PhD, President of the Hepatitis B Foundation and its Baruch S. Blumberg Institute. “Current guidelines recommend testing for people in high risk populations, but data suggests that up to 40% of those infected may not fall within those populations. It is imperative that we test everyone in order to provide care and education that will reduce deaths from hepatitis B.”
This recommendation is a bold shift from the current hepatitis B risk-based screening guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). But multiple challenges, including the complexity of risk-based screening, and stigma surrounding hepatitis B, have led to a lack of adherence of the current guidelines, and there has not been a significant increase in hepatitis B testing in the U.S.
HBF’s recommendation is limited to adults, because universal infant vaccination has been standard in the U.S. since 1991. The new recommendation includes the provision that individuals who test negative for hepatitis B in the screening and have not been vaccinated, be offered and receive an effective hepatitis B vaccine.
The WHO has called for reduction in the number of deaths due to hepatitis B by at least 65% by the year 2030. While increased vaccination rates can reduce the number of new cases, “the only way to achieve the WHO goal is to identify those with a chronic infection, by screening, and then linking them with care,” says Chari Cohen, DrPH, MPH, Vice President for Public Health and Programs, at the Hepatitis B Foundation.
“Testing based only on risk factors has failed to identify over a million infected individuals. It is time to move forward with universal testing to make this effort most effective and most efficient.”
While there is still no cure for chronic hepatitis B, current medications work by lowering the amount of virus in the blood, which in turn reduces damage to the liver. Effective treatment has been shown to reduce death from liver disease by 50-70% in those with chronic infection. In addition, there are many drugs currently in development that could provide even more effective treatment or a cure in the future. However, it is estimated that fewer than 7% of Americans with chronic hepatitis B are currently receiving treatment.
“It is absolutely within our power to reduce deaths due to hepatitis B,” says Robert Gish, MD, HBF Medical Director. “But it will only be possible if we identify everyone who needs treatment and help them find care they can afford.”
About Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is the most common serious liver infection in the world. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus that attacks and injures the liver. Each year up to 1 million people die from hepatitis B worldwide despite the fact that it is preventable and treatable. Hepatitis B is a “silent epidemic” because most people do not have symptoms when they are newly infected or chronically infected. Thus, they can unknowingly spread the virus to others and continue the silent spread of hepatitis B. For people who are chronically infected but don’t have any symptoms, their liver is still being silently damaged which can develop into serious liver disease such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.
About the Hepatitis B Foundation: The Hepatitis B Foundation is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization solely dedicated to finding a cure for hepatitis B and improving the quality of life for those affected worldwide through research, education and patient advocacy. To learn more, go to www.hepb.org, read our blog at hepb.org/blog, follow us on Twitter @HepBFoundation, find us on Facebook at facebook.com/hepbfoundation or call 215-489-4900.