06/07/2011 11:37 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

Killing Us Softly: What Americans Don't Know & Why It Will Kill Them

For too long, viral hepatitis, an epidemic that doesn't necessarily make headlines, has steadily and silently affected the lives of millions of Americans. In fact, as many as 5.3 million Americans have hepatitis B or hepatitis C, contributing to a global burden that now engulfs more than half a billion people. These infections fuel a cascade of suffering, including cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. In fact, viral hepatitis is the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S. In short, vulnerable communities are being devastated across our nation and, indeed, around the world. Last month, our government made a commitment to advance and integrate national efforts to break the silence.

Why is taking action so necessary? First, because those with the disease can be symptom-free for decades, and few actually know their status or understand how highly infectious viral hepatitis is. For example, hepatitis C is 10 times more infectious and hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV/AIDS. And nearly two-thirds of those living with hepatitis don't even know they're infected. This tragic lack of awareness leaves infected persons more vulnerable to complications and also more likely to unwittingly spread the infection to others. Second, without action, hepatitis B and C will burden our country with at least $20 billion in health care expenses over the next 10 years. Finally, we know that too many opportunities for prevention, testing and treatment -- including vaccination against hepatitis B -- have remained untapped or underutilized.

Fortunately, the federal government has initiated new efforts to tackle this treatable and highly preventable public health challenge. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released Combating the Silent Epidemic of Viral Hepatitis: Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis, a comprehensive strategy to combat the disease. This action plan contains a series of interventions that are both cost-effective and feasible. The plan includes some important building blocks already in place, including vaccination against hepatitis B. Most notably, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) improves patient access to viral hepatitis services through education, testing, vaccination and referral. Moreover, the ACA encourages state-based Medicaid programs to cover clinical preventive services such as immunization. Other strategies aim to raise public awareness about viral hepatitis and to create more opportunities to train health professionals to diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent more people from getting this disease.

We hope that these and other commitments will catalyze action for further progress. On the global front, the World Health Organization has designated July 28 as the first annual World Hepatitis Day. Such attention is long overdue for a condition that affects one in 12 persons worldwide. These new beginnings can shine a bright light on a disease that has lingered for too long in the shadows.

As a nation and as part of a global society, it is time to break the silence. Too many are suffering and the consequences affect us all. Together, we must finally sound the alarm that can serve as a call to action to end this silent epidemic.

Rep Mike Honda is Chair Emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Follow Rep Honda on Facebook and Twitter. Dr. Howard K. Koh is the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.