At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last week, I testified to the devastating and deadly impacts of an unsuspecting disease: viral hepatitis. The fact that I was joined by Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for Health, and Dr. John Ward, director of the Viral Hepatitis Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, underscores the importance of the issue. Government oversight is a good start to getting the American public more informed, but much more is needed, according to the Institute of Medicines 2010 report, Hepatitis and Liver Cancer: A National Strategy for Prevention and Control of Hepatitis B and C.Few people realize how highly infectious viral hepatitis is. Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV. Few realize that, left untreated, it can cause liver disease, liver cancer and premature death decades after infection. Few realize that roughly 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with hepatitis B, more than 170 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C, and in this nation alone, an estimated 5.3 million people are infected with either hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Tragically, an average of two-thirds of those infected are unaware of their status.It is no surprise, then, that some are calling this a silent crisis. However, we cannot afford to be silent anymore. In fact, we will not be silent anymore. Why? Because our countrymen and women are dying daily, needlessly, from a disease that is entirely preventable if detected early. Each year, approximately 15,000 people die from liver cancer or liver diseases related to hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Thats more than 40 Americans dying every day, with no state or district in our nation exempt from its deadly reach. Beyond the tragic and preventable loss of human life and its subsequent hit to our countrys productivity, the costs to our country are explicitly economic as well. Without effective prevention and vaccination methods in place, chronic hepatitis B and C are expected to cost our country at least $20 billion in treatments alone over the next 10 years. As a result, over the same time frame, commercial and Medicare costs will more than double. Projecting further out, over the next 20 years, total medical costs for patients with hepatitis C infection are expected to increase more than 2.5 times from $30 billion to more than $85 billion.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.