Seeking an End to Viral Hepatitis

Chronic viral hepatitis has a reputation for being a silent killer. The infection often goes undetected until the symptoms of advanced liver cancer appear. By that point, a patient has a five-year survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 3.5 to 5.3 million people in the United States are living with HBV or HCV, as the two infections are known, and while drug therapies can treat both, there is no cure for Hepatitis B, and no vaccine for Hepatitis C. Hepatitis C can be cured, but treatment is very expensive.

Brian Strom, a renowned epidemiologist and the chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, is heading a team of scientists who are trying to change the outlook for hepatitis patients. Last month Strom was appointed to chair a committee selected by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to determine whether eliminating HBV and HCV is feasible, and if so, to develop an action plan within the next few years.

“Hepatitis is an important health issue affecting 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. population,” says Strom, a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) who has led several institute projects, including the smallpox vaccination program implementation in 2002-2003 and the committee on dietary salt intake in 2012-2013. “The challenges are significant: To determine if elimination is doable and, if so, how would you design a program to get rid of it in the United States.”

HBV is most commonly transmitted through contact with infectious blood, semen and other bodily fluids, through birth to an infected mother, sexual contact with an infected individual and sharing of needles, syringes and other drug paraphernalia. The most common route of HCV transmission is through the sharing of contaminated injection-drug equipment.

According to Gillian Buckley, director of the feasibility study, the committee is conducting its analysis under an accelerated schedule so that its conclusions and recommendations can be reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prior to its participation in the 69th World Health Assembly in May 2016. There, a five-year global strategy for fighting viral hepatitis will be examined.

“There may be different goals internationally for greatly reducing and eliminating hepatitis transmission,” Buckely says. “As the momentum builds, we want our findings to be considered as the global strategy is being developed.”

Source: Rutgers University