By Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.)
Across our country and around the world, hepatitis B and C have taken countless lives and the numbers continue to explode. Regrettably, this rise is partially tied to the heroin epidemic in our country—since the 1990s the medical use and subsequent abuse of highly addictive opioids like Oxycontin has risen tremendously
The overuse of medication has caused too many Americans to succumb to addiction, and many turn to heroin. The rise in heroin use means that individuals are sharing needles as their need for the drug outweighs safety concerns.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there were nearly 30,000 new hepatitis C infections in 2013, a 150 percent increase since 2010. The CDC also found an alarming rise in new infections among people under the age of 30, especially in rural areas.
Tragically, hepatitis infection, driven by drug abuse, threatens an alarming portion of an entire generation of Americans. We must do everything we can to help address heroin and opioid addiction.
Hepatitis C and hepatitis B are life threatening yet preventable diseases. Look at the story of Rob, of Hawaii. He met his wife Mei over 30 years ago when they were students at the University of Hawaii.
She is Chinese from Hong Kong, and he is Caucasian. In the over 30 years since they first met they’ve built a life in Hawaii. They have two kids in their 20s—both college educated and looking to build families and lives of their own.
Their life was great—until Mei suddenly became ill. Only weeks after first taking ill, Mei passed away from liver failure.
To add to this incredible tragedy, shortly before Mei’s passing they learned that not only Mei – but both of their children – had been infected by hepatitis B since birth.
For over 30 years, they’d never known that they were infected by hepatitis.
Hepatitis is 100 times more infectious than the HIV virus, and in the U.S. perinatal transmission, or being passed from mother to child immediately before or after birth, is one of the primary ways that people contract the disease. It’s a silent killer that slowly destroys the liver, often displaying no symptoms in those infected with the virus until it is too late – the liver is diseased, riddled with cancer, cirrhosis, or end-stage failure.
Around the world, four hundred million people are living with hepatitis B or C. 1.4 million people die annually from complications due to viral hepatitis. In the United States, approximately 6 million individuals have hepatitis B or C, likely an underestimate. Both hepatitis B and C are the leading causes of liver cancer, and 65-75 percent of infected individuals do not know that they have either virus.
The difficulty with identifying the disease means that we do not have accurate data on infections. Without accurate data, we do not have a strong grasp of the scope of the problem. If we don’t take decisive action soon, our health care system will face a significant burden in decades to come.
We simply cannot handle the costs of the rampant spread of a disease whose complications are entirely preventable.
Stopping hepatitis has to be a three-step process.
First, people need to get tested, especially those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, of which one in 10 will get hepatitis B.
Second, we need to make treatment options available to everyone regardless of income level.
And third, we must continue to invest in research on hepatitis to rid the world of the viruses once and for all.
This week, we recognized World Hepatitis Day, a day that President Obama declared by proclamation for the first time in the United States. This day was an opportunity to make a new commitment to educating people about the silent killers, helping prevent further infection rate spikes, identifying infected individuals, and providing them with proper medical care.
Working together, we can eradicate this preventable, treatable virus and save millions of lives.
Hirono is Hawaii’s junior senator, serving since 2013. She sits on the Armed Services; the Energy and Natural Resources; the Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees. Honda represents California’s 17th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2001. He sits on the Appropriations Committee.
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