At Cao’s Request, House Committee Holds Hearing on Viral Hepatitis, “the Secret Epidemic”

June 18, 2010

WASHINGTON – At the request of Congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao (LA-02), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing today on “Viral Hepatitis: the Secret Epidemic.”

Public health records show viral hepatitis, which is transmitted mainly through contact with infected blood, is the most common blood borne infection in the United States, and it is the nation’s leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants, representing one of the largest and costliest disease burdens. Over the next decade, about 150,000 Americans will die from liver cancer and end-stage liver disease associated with chronic hepatitis B and C.

In prepared remarks submitted for the record, Cao pointed out that between 3.5 to 5.3 million Americans–about 1% to 2% of the population–are infected with viral hepatitis. In Louisiana, some 80,000 people–about 1.8 percent of the population–have hepatitis C. Approximately 20,000 people have hepatitis B and 4.6% of adults are considered at risk.

In New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, about half of hepatitis B patients are Asian Americans in contrast to only 5% of the overall population. Among African Americans, rates of hepatitis C are twice the national average.

Cao said, “This is a grave public health crisis and human tragedy, especially given the asymptomatic nature of the disease, as 65% to 75% of individuals living with viral hepatitis are unaware they are infected until they develop symptoms of liver disease and cancer years later.” Cao pointed out that only about half of the cases of hepatitis C in Louisiana are detected for inclusion on the state’s hepatitis register.

Witnesses testifying at today’s hearing included Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04), himself a hepatitis C patient, and Congressman Bill Cassidy (LA-06), a leading Louisiana hepatologist.

The committee considered, among other things, a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study that found the government has failed to raise awareness, dedicate appropriate resources and properly identify, screen, treat and prevent viral hepatitis.

For example, the administrative budget for the Division of Viral Hepatitis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represents only 2% of the agency’s entire budget. Despite projected costs of $16 billion a year nationally, the federal government gives states an average of only $90,000 a year for hepatitis prevention in adults. This provides for little more than one staff position’s salary and does not fund any actual services.

The report concluded that the federal government’s “current approach to the prevention and control of chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C is not working.” The IOM attributed the lack of knowledge and awareness among the American public and health providers, the large health disparities, and the high mortality rates to the lack of dedicated resources and national leadership.

Cao said, “By calling attention to viral hepatitis at the Congressional level, we hope to focus attention on this ‘secret epidemic’ and channel resources toward its prevention, more effective treatmen and cure.”

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