Hepatitis history among Alaska Native people: Part 1 in a series on ANTHC support and prevention against liver disease and hepatitis

July 10, 2015

In the 1970s, Alaska Native children were dying from liver cancer caused by hepatitis B, a virus that can cause chronic liver disease leading to cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure and death. The Liver Disease & Hepatitis Program was launched in 1983 in response to this epidemic, with an initial mission to vaccinate Alaska Native people against the hepatitis B virus, preventing chronic infection and development of liver disease. The vaccine program has been very successful, eradicating acute hepatitis B in Alaska Native persons and liver cancer in Alaska Native children. Since then, the Liver Disease & Hepatitis Program worked to eliminate risks to the health of our people from hepatitis A in the 1990s and currently works against risks from hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that can cause liver scarring, liver cancer and liver failure. It is estimated that 3-5 million Americans, about 2-3 percent of the population, have been infected with hepatitis C. Rates of hepatitis C are similar for Alaska Native and American Indian people and other ethnic groups in the U.S; however, there are greater risks for our people, with higher rates of liver failure, liver cancer, liver-related deaths and hospitalizations of Alaska Native and American Indian persons with hepatitis C infection. Successful treatment of hepatitis C can reverse scarring and reduce the risk of liver disease and liver disease-related death. The Liver Disease & Hepatitis Program serves more than 3,500 Alaska Native and American Indian persons living with chronic liver disease across Alaska. This includes 2,000 persons living with hepatitis C, 1,200 persons living with chronic hepatitis B and 200 persons affected by autoimmune liver disease. Additionally, persons with liver diseases and abnormal liver function tests are seen in daily Liver Clinics held in the ANMC Internal Medicine Clinic and throughout the year at field clinics held across the state. The program at ANTHC is the national resource for providers treating liver disease and hepatitis patients throughout the Indian Health System. New treatment options and a Strategic Initiative at ANTHC are making significant progress in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with hepatitis C. Up until 2013, treatment options for hepatitis C were poor and the medications had significant side effects. However, in late 2013, new medications with fewer side effects were FDA-approved for the treatment of hepatitis C. These new drugs have been effective in curing hepatitis C for more than 90 percent of patients that receive treatment. In the coming weeks, we will be sharing more about how the ANTHC Liver Disease & Hepatitis Program’s prevention and education offerings, program services and treatment of hepatitis C are improving the health of our people. This series comes in advance of World Hepatitis Day on July 28, one of only four official disease-specific world health days recognized by the World Health Organization. For more information on the ANTHC Liver Disease & Hepatitis Program, visit www.anthc.org/hep. For more information about World Hepatitis Day, visit www.who.int/campaigns/hepatitis-day/2015/event/en/.

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