Chari Cohen, DrPH, MPH
Senior Vice President, Hepatitis B Foundation; Associate Professor, Baruch S. Blumberg Institute
Timothy Block, Ph.D.
President, CEO, and Co-Founder; Hepatitis B Foundation and Baruch S. Blumberg Institute
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has highlighted an important lesson for us: to address a worldwide epidemic and save lives, we need effective strategies for prevention, treatment, and cure, and we need the public health and medical communities to implement these strategies.
In May, which is both Asian Pacific Heritage Month and Viral Hepatitis Awareness Month in the United States, we are reminded that we face these same challenges for an illness that leads to approximately 840,000 deaths worldwide each year. The hepatitis B virus chronically infects almost 300 million people worldwide and 2 million Americans. It disproportionately impacts Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and people of African descent. In the United States, only 25 percent of those who have hepatitis B are diagnosed, and of those diagnosed, less than half receive care for their hepatitis B.
The hepatitis B virus can cause a chronic, lifelong infection that greatly increases the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer, striking people down in the prime of their lives. Those who live with hepatitis B face stigma, discrimination, and a relentless fear of developing liver cancer and having their lives cut short. They also face a lifetime of pills.
Currently, hepatitis B has no cure. There are antiviral medications that can slow down viral replication in the body and, for many people, can prevent liver damage and liver cancer. But these medications don’t work for everyone, they can be expensive, and they need to be taken for many years, usually for as long as a person lives.
On the verge
We are in a unique situation to address, and even eliminate, hepatitis B. We can create a world where no one dies of hepatitis B. We have many of the tools necessary, including a safe and effective vaccine that can prevent new infections. What we don’t yet have is a cure.
A cure is a critical tool that would allow us to eliminate hepatitis B worldwide and save millions of lives. With a cure, we could reduce the need for liver transplantation and cancer treatment, saving billions of future dollars. And we could improve the length, productivity, and quality of life for all those currently infected — bringing an end to a lifetime of painful symptoms, worry, fear, isolation, and stigma.
Researchers around the world are diligently working to find a cure. At the Hepatitis B Foundation and its research arm the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, we have more than 50 scientists trying to find a cure for hepatitis B. But overall, hepatitis B is an under-prioritized and under-funded disease. Without an influx of resources, we fear we will not reach the goal of eliminating hepatitis B and will continue to see lives lost.
We call on key stakeholders – governments, corporate partners, medical institutions, academics, and public health organizations — to work together to prioritize hepatitis B, help find a cure, and build capacity in the United States and globally to ensure all people who have hepatitis B are diagnosed and able to access medical care.
We urge communities and families impacted by hepatitis B to make their voices heard and to advocate for increased resources. Working together, we can find a cure and eliminate hepatitis B.