Ed Towns

Congressman, House of Representatives
Statement on Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus and transmitted primarily through blood-to-blood contact. It has been estimated that the hepatitis C virus is four times more prevalent than HIV and is the most common cause of chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver transplants. Unfortunately, African Americans have the highest rate of infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that annually 35,000 to 150,000 Americans may be infected with hepatitis C. This is a wide range. It is my understanding that this discrepancy may be explained by inconsistent methods of reporting. It seems that some public health departments report all those who test positive for hepatitis antibodies, while other health departments report only those whose illness has been diagnosed and reported by a physician.

Mr. Chairman, I believe that the Federal government can and should

standardize the reporting criteria for this disease. Needless to say, consistent and accurate counting is mandatory in determining the spread, dimension, and resources necessary to combat the disease. However, we should be mindful of other factors that interfere with accurate counting of this disease. Reporting of hepatitis C may be hampered by the social stigma and discrimination suffered by those who have the disease. Because approximately 50 percent of hepatitis C in the U.S. is transmitted through intravenous drug use, many who need help choose not to disclose their diagnosis. This disease spreads easily through contact with infected blood. Therefore, anyone who routinely comes in contact with blood or blood products could be at risk. Health care workers and patients on long term kidney dialysis have been found to be particularly susceptible to hepatitis C. I had hoped that the AIDS epidemic would have taught us that a virus does not discriminate and we should not discriminate against

those who are affected.

In the 104th Congress, this subcommittee recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services ensure that the estimated 300,000 living recipients of blood and blood products who may have been infected with hepatitis C virus before 1990 be notified of their potential infection so that they might seek diagnosis and treatment.

Mr. Chairman, I am interested in learning the outcome of that recommendation. Additionally, I should note that the FY1998 Labor/HHS Appropriations report suggested that the National Institutes of Health coordinate research to respond to the hepatitis C epidemic. I am interested in learning what actions are planned. Finally, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing today's witnesses and want to especially commend your judgment in having both the current and former Surgeons General here today to discuss this issue.