Bridging Science and Education Together to Eliminate Hepatitis C
The Liver Health Initiative’s Thelma King Thiel, and HCV co-discoverer and vaccine developer Michael Houghton, PhD, are a “Dynamic Duo” that are working together to bring about an end to this virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have expressed national concern that efforts to eliminate viral hepatitis C with effective treatments, which have been available for over a decade, have only reached one third of patients with eligible health insurance.1
Why is this happening? Hepatitis C or HCV is spread through contact with blood from an infected individual which can occur due to unsafe injection practices, contaminated blood transfusions, injection drug use, or any daily practices that involve exposure to blood. Though some individuals can clear the acute virus from their systems naturally, 55 to 85 percent of individuals go on to develop chronic HCV which can lead to extensive liver cell damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.2
HCV is a "silent epidemic" as it is 10 times more infectious than HIV, yet at least 50 percent of individuals are completely unaware of their infection.3 Patients often have no symptoms or pain to motivate them to seek treatment because the liver is a non-complaining organ. Many individuals are uninformed about the importance of their liver, the dangers of hepatitis viruses, or how their unhealthy food and lifestyle choices could be exacerbating their liver health and causing irreparable damage.
Enter, the Dynamic Duo composed of Nobel Laureate Michael Houghton, PhD, who is credited for co-discovery of the hepatitis C virus in the 1980s, and the Liver Health Initiatives Founder and Chair Thelma King Thiel, an internationally recognized advocate in promoting liver health education and disease prevention following the loss of her infant son to a rare and fatal liver disease called biliary atresia that caused cirrhosis to develop.
Houghton joined the Liver Health Initiative Board of Directors, which is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting liver health education and disease prevention. “I’ve known Mike for a long time; he is a dear friend and true research pioneer," Thiel said. "He’s also deeply committed to making his research actionable and that’s where we’re finding opportunities to collaborate,” This team believes that bringing together scientific discovery and personalized education is key in making a measurable impact against hepatitis C, and consequently cirrhosis, liver cancer, and other liver-related diseases."
Both Houghton and Thiel are committed to saving lives in the fight against HCV. Apart from the original discovery of hepatitis C, Dr. Houghton has contributed to numerous landmark studies in the field; he is currently working on developing an HCV vaccine that is undergoing clinical trials. This breakthrough will again revolutionize the fight against hepatitis C, providing vulnerable populations with a viable harm reduction measure that will significantly improve their projected health outcomes.
Thiel has harnessed the knowledge she gained about the liver during her experience caring for her critically ill son, to make liver health personal and relatable for a variety of audiences. Mass ignorance about the liver contributes to individuals' lack of motivation to pursue diagnostic options despite CDC's recommendation that all people born between 1945-1965 be tested for HCV.
Similarly, treatment initiation for HCV is exceedingly low; since the liver has no mechanism for eliciting pain, treacherous hepatitis C viruses wreak havoc on the body while diagnosed patients avoid treatment due to cost, poor access, and a lack of personal urgency.
The World Health Organization has set an ambitious goal to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. With the availability of curative treatment for hepatitis C and the hope of a vaccine on the horizon, this goal is within reach. However, it is critically important that we boost education and awareness about hepatitis C for the public so that they are motivated to assess their own risk behaviors, seek testing, comply with treatment, and accept vaccinations when they are available.
"Thelma's tireless work to promote liver health is really important. Everyone needs to be aware of the dangers of sharing injection drug equipment, of avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, of avoiding high fat diets and being overweight, and protecting their livers by getting the available hepatitis A and B vaccines, and we hope a HCV vaccine later this decade that is currently under development," Houghton said.
Elimination of hepatitis C is an urgent public health need, and hopefully we’ll have all the necessary tools to realize this goal in the near future. At this point, simple but effective liver health education is absolutely essential in this fight to provide a foundation for individuals to understand the importance of their liver and take responsibility for protecting it from hepatitis C and its related health problems. Working together, passionate leaders like Houghton and Thiel make promoting prevention of liver diseases “understandable” and “doable.”
1. Thompson, W. W., Symum, H., Sandul, A., Gupta, N., Patel, P., Nelson, N., Mermin, J., & Wester, C. (2022). Vital Signs: Hepatitis C Treatment Among Insured Adults — United States, 2019–2020. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 71(32), 1011–1017. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7132e1
2. World Health Organization. (2022, June 24). Hepatitis C. World Health Organization (WHO). Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-c#:%7E:text=Acute%20HCV%20infections%20are%20usually,will%20develop%20chronic%20HCV%20infection.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Hepatitis C is a Silent Epidemic [Fact Sheet]. https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/images/2016/hepatitis-c-a-silent-epidemic-infographic.jpg