By Dr. Howard K. Koh
WASHINGTON (May 3, 2012) — This month we are observing both Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Hepatitis Awareness Month. The dual observances are an important opportunity to bring attention to the disproportionate burden of viral hepatitis among the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the United States and to renew our commitment and call to action to address this disparity.
Viral Hepatitis Disparities in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities
Liver cancer and other liver problems caused by viral hepatitis (for example, cirrhosis) affect some U.S. populations more than others, resulting in substantial health disparities. This is especially true for Asian and Pacific Islanders Americans. In fact, an estimated 1 in 12 APIs are living with chronic hepatitis B.
So, although Asian/Pacific Islander Americans make up only some 5 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent 50 percent of the estimated 800,000 — 1.4 million persons who are infected with hepatitis B in the United States. These health disparities are further reflected in viral hepatitis–associated illness and death. For example, liver cancer incidence is highest among the API population.
Despite these high rates, many APIs are not tested for hepatitis B, thus remaining unaware of their infection and not accessing lifesaving medical care and appropriate treatment. Read more about this health disparity and what can be done at CDC’s Viral Hepatitis and APIs page.
What HHS Is Doing
The good news is that we do have effective tools to eliminate hepatitis B; there is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B and effective treatments are available for people with chronic hepatitis B infection. Culturally appropriate outreach and education, including testing, vaccination for hepatitis B virus and care and treatment for those who are infected has been shown to decrease the burden of liver cancer.
These are among our viral hepatitis priorities here at the Department of Health and Human Services as reflected in the Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis. Since I announced that plan last year, colleagues from across the Department of Health and Human Services, along with partners from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons, have been working to coordinate and implement a number of strategies to educate healthcare providers and communities about viral hepatitis and reduce hepatitis health disparities.
The Action Plan identifies the API community as one of its priority populations. These efforts are complemented and enhanced by the HHS Plan for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Health, which was also initiated last year.
The HHS Plan identifies four over-arching health issues that the Department is pursuing to improve the health and well-being of AANHPIs. Significantly, the first of these four issues is: Prevent, treat and control Hepatitis B viral infections in AANHPI communities.
The plan identifies specific strategies, lead agencies, and benchmarks that are now being pursued to achieve this goal. This plan was developed as part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which aims to improve quality of life and enhance opportunities for Asian American and Pacific Islanders to participate in Federal programs.
Finally, the Affordable Care Act, the new healthcare law, has become another vital tool in our fight against viral hepatitis in the API community. By expanding health insurance coverage, the health care law is improving patient access to comprehensive viral hepatitis-related prevention and treatment services. Its focus on expanding access to preventive care will require new health plans to cover the hepatitis B vaccine for many individuals, which will keep people healthy and prevent the spread of the disease.
What You Can Do
Improved coordination of viral hepatitis activities across HHS and other Federal departments and expanded health insurance coverage will have a positive impact on our efforts to reduce viral hepatitis disparities in the API population. But, as important as those efforts are, they are not sufficient, by themselves, to achieve the goals of the Action Plan.
The active engagement of state and local partners, as well as people like you, is absolutely critical. Please join us in raising awareness about hepatitis B among your families, friends, colleagues and co-workers. Make hepatitis B part of your conversations during the month of May. To help you, the CDC is releasing several helpful tools this month.
Visit the CDC’s Hepatitis Awareness Month Partner Resources page to learn more. Working together, we can bring to life the Action Plan’s vision: “A Nation committed to combating the silent epidemic of viral hepatitis.”
Dr. Howard K. Koh serves as Assistant Secretary for Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.