Department of Health Urges New Yorkers to Get Immunized and Get Tested During Hepatitis Awareness Month in May

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 8, 2008) – "Am I number 12? Am I one of the 500 million worldwide - one in 12 - with viral hepatitis B or C?"

The state Department of Health encourages New Yorkers to ask themselves this question during Hepatitis Awareness Month in May.

"Our goal in New York State is to drastically reduce and eventually eliminate all cases of hepatitis in newborns, children and adults," said Governor David A. Paterson, who recently issued a proclamation declaring the entire month of May as Viral Hepatitis Awareness Month in the Empire State.

New York's Hepatitis Awareness Month is an extension of World Hepatitis Day on May 19, an international campaign observed in 12 major cities and more than 50 countries to educate the public about this life-threatening group of viruses.

Viral hepatitis refers to three very different viruses that can harm the liver - hepatitis A, B and C. Vaccines can prevent infection from hepatitis A and B; however, there is no such vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. If left untreated, viral hepatitis can damage the liver, leading to liver cancer or even death.

"Many people with chronic hepatitis C aren't even aware of it, because they often show no symptoms until the liver has been damaged," state Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D., said. "For that reason, it's often called a silent epidemic. The time for silence is over. People should get a blood test, and talk with their doctors."

During May, activities will be held across New York State to educate and encourage all persons to get immunized against hepatitis A and B and tested for hepatitis C through lectures and other forms of outreach to public and medical communities.

"Campaigns like these empower individuals through education about the disease to take steps to protect their health," Dr. Daines said.

Being immunized is the first step in prevention. All children should be given hepatitis vaccines, starting with hepatitis B vaccine at birth and hepatitis A vaccine at 1 year. Any older child or adult who has not been vaccinated may also get hepatitis vaccines. Another extremely important step is to avoid risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex or illegal drug use. This is especially important for hepatitis C, for which there is no vaccine. Anyone who thinks they might have put themselves at risk for hepatitis should get a blood test.

Many individuals with chronic hepatitis C are unaware that they are infected because the disease is often asymptomatic until advanced liver damage develops. An estimated 304,000 New Yorkers have been infected with hepatitis C, including nearly 240,000 with chronic infections. Up to 5 percent of persons with chronic hepatitis C infections die, and it is the leading reason for liver transplants.

The 2008-09 budget includes $1.58 million for the establishment of a comprehensive Hepatitis C program in the state, which will allow for early identification, increased access to care and treatment and education for those at-risk for or infected with hepatitis C.

Additional information and updates on this topic can be found on the New York State Department of Health's website: http://www.nyhealth.gov/hepatitis/.