Time is Now To Reverse Hepatitis Trend, Experts Say

For years, advocates have been fighting hepatitis in relative quiet — but that may be changing, according to Rachel McLean.

“Last week the federal [Department of] Health and Human Services released its hepatitis action plan,” McLean said. “For HHS to say we’re going to do something, well, that’s a big deal.”

McLean is the hepatitis prevention coordinator for the state Department of Public Health, and she was part of a panel discussion yesterday in Sacramento. The event was part of the California Health Policy Forum, put on by the Center for Health Improvement and funded in part by the California HealthCare Foundation. CHCF is the publisher of California Healthline.

Last year, McLean said, California released its own blueprint for how to attack the three types of hepatitis. “We released our first adult viral hepatitis strategic plan, covering the next five years,” she said. “As it turns out, the statewide plan and the federal one are on parallel courses.”

The first step is to improve surveillance, she said. That is, the state must figure out just how prevalent hepatitis A, B and C are, as well as the areas where the virus is most common and the types of people most vulnerable to it.

“The national plan is actually really good,” McLean said. “The big thing is, they’re committing to hepatitis, and that’s never happened before.”

It’s often called the silent killer, and that’s a name advocates are pretty sick of, according to Theresa Hughes, founder of Wings for Life, an advocacy group that focuses on the prison population, which Hughes calls the epicenter of the hepatitis tsunami.

“We cannot be silent anymore,” she said. “We need to raise our voice. How can young people, people of color, continue to die, and we remain silent? I think we could do better.”

McLean said some of the first steps are to improve vaccination efforts, increase testing of adults, promote a needle exchange, launch a statewide registry — and mostly, to give people a better understanding of hepatitis, particularly B and C.

That understanding also has to extend to medical practitioners, Jennifer Ong of Hep B Free Alameda County said.

“Providers often can be a stumbling block,” Ong said. “Many of them, even when patients ask for it, they say, ‘You don’t need the test.'”

According to the California Hepatitis Alliance, six hepatitis-related bills are making their way through the Legislature, including AB 1382 (by Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina), which would authorize HIV counselors to conduct hepatitis C testing.

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