By Joan M. Block, RN, BSN
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Hepatitis B Foundation
Tuesday, July 28, is World Hepatitis Day, which commemorates the birthday of Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying the hepatitis B virus and developing a vaccine to prevent it. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the hepatitis B virus – a discovery that has literally saved hundreds of millions of lives.
Dr. Blumberg was also co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation, which was established in 1991 to help one single family. Today, we help millions.
When the foundation began, the general public had no awareness about hepatitis B and affected individuals had nowhere to turn for information and support. Nonprofit organizations didn’t want to touch hepatitis B because it was perceived as an infectious disease due to undesirable lifestyle choices.
Public health experts said the vaccine would wipe out hepatitis B in a generation so there was no need for a cure. Pharmaceutical companies didn’t see a profitable market for hepatitis B drugs, so they didn’t invest in discovery research and development. And, policy makers were uninterested because they weren’t hearing anything about the issue.
Despite these challenges and obstacles, the foundation remained committed and persisted in fulfilling its research, outreach and advocacy mission. Over the years, it often felt like we were “the little engine that could” as we labored uphill to raise awareness, raise funds for our research and outreach programs, and raise hepatitis B as a national health priority in Washington.
Our commitment was strengthened by Dr. Blumberg’s belief that hepatitis B could be eliminated in our lifetime. We believed it, too. The remarkable scientific and medical advances that have been made since his discovery are proof that hepatitis B is a problem that can be solved.
Hepatitis B is a virus that is now out in the open and on the run … and we have it by the legs. There is a safe vaccine and good treatments. There is increased awareness. Affected individuals are coming out of the closet and sharing their stories and hepatitis B is now a protected condition under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Hepatitis B is back in the global spotlight as well with the World Health Organization creating new prevention and management guidelines. Governments in highly affected countries are looking seriously at how they can reduce the burden of hepatitis B, which is a vaccine-preventable and treatable disease.
Together, we are all working to raise the noise level around hepatitis B to engage policy makers and decision-makers to increase funding for the many unmet needs. Granted, more must still be done and will be done, but these are all good beginnings.
Our hope for the next 10 years is simple. We hope that an expanded vaccination program will protect everyone, young and old. We hope that a complete cure is found that will benefit everyone who is chronically infected with hepatitis B. We hope that all of those living with hepatitis B will be able to lead healthy and fulfilling lives, free of prejudice and discrimination.
Now is the time to make hepatitis B history.