Local, state official seek to eradicate viral hepatitis

November 4, 2011 7:42:18 PM PDT
State and federal health officials joined San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee this morning to discuss a national plan to eradicate a silent killer -- viral hepatitis, which causes hepatitis B.

Between 3.5 and 5.3 million Americans are affected by the virus, which is the leading cause of liver cancer, according to health officials. Thousands of people are affected in San Francisco, which has the highest rate of liver cancer in the country.

"We are proud that San Francisco has played such a leading role in the effort to eradicate viral hepatitis," Lee said. "We are wrestling with this in a very good way."

That effort involves creating public and healthcare-provider awareness about the important of testing and vaccinating at-risk populations for the virus, according to the San Francisco Hep B Free campaign, a citywide effort to make San Francisco the first hepatitis B-free city.

Promoting routine screenings and vaccinations as well as improving access to care for chronically infected individuals are the campaign's other goals.

"We will continue to strengthen the partnerships between public health officials, medical professionals and treatment advocates to educate and encourage widespread testing, prevention and treatment among our most vulnerable communities," Lee said.

Without treatment or monitoring, one in four people who are chronically infected with hepatitis B die from liver cancer or liver failure, according to the campaign, which targets Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, a group that is disproportionately affected by the disease.

One in 10 Asians are chronically infected with hepatitis B and, compared with the general population, are four times more likely to die from liver cancer.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, the honorary chairwoman of the campaign, is among the chronically infected and spoke this morning about the push to make San Francisco the first city to eradicate the virus.

San Francisco has led the nation in the effort to raise awareness about the virus, Lee said, noting that the campaign seeks "to create not only the best local model ... but to really start a national movement."

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh launched a national action plan to address the epidemic that was based on San Francisco's efforts.

"We have too much death that could be and should be prevented," Koh said, adding that the way San Francisco has mobilized to raise awareness "has been a source of great inspiration for the rest of the country."

The hepatitis B virus can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and liver cancer. Although there is no cure for hepatitis B, treatment can significantly reduce the risk of liver damage.

"This is a major health crisis. This is an epidemic." HHS Region IX Director Herb Schultz said.

Koh is the keynote speaker for the fourth annual "B a Hero" benefit gala and award dinner, which is scheduled to take place today at San Francisco's InterContinental Hotel from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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