Published May 31, 2016
TAHLEQUAH, OKLAHOMA — A Cherokee Nation physician was honored at the White House Thursday for the tribe’s commitment to testing and treating patients for hepatitis C. The efforts are leading to more patients being cured of hepatitis C and living longer lives.
Dr. Jorge Mera, director of infectious diseases at the Cherokee Nation, was invited to a ceremony at the White House in observance of National Hepatitis Testing Day. Acting Assistant Secretary of Health Karen B. DeSalvo presented Dr. Mera with his award.
It is the first year that the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services presented awards to organizations actively testing for hepatitis. Other health organizations recognized were from Hawaii, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Dallas and Wyoming.
“Increasing testing for hepatitis B and C is a critical part of ensuring good health for all Americans,” Dr. DeSalvo said. “With coordinated efforts by diverse partners like those being recognized Thursday, we can reduce deaths and disparities in hepatitis B and C and improve the lives of people living with chronic viral hepatitis.”
The Cherokee Nation, thanks in large part to Dr. Mera, began a hepatitis C elimination project in 2015. The tribe executed plans developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, the Cherokee Nation has screened more than 12,000 Native American patients for hepatitis C. Among those testing positive, more than 300 have been treated and are considered cured of the infection that causes liver disease.
“At Cherokee Nation we are diligently addressing hepatitis C infection within our tribal population. We are able to do that because of the ongoing partnership with the CDC, and I thank Dr. Mera and his team for their work. It is a pioneering effort and I am proud we are making great strides,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “Indian people face a huge disparity in the rate of contracting hepatitis C in America, but through our efforts we are educating our citizens and systematically fighting, and even curing, hepatitis C. Hopefully, these best practices will soon be replicated across Indian Country.”
An estimated 850,000 Americans have hepatitis B and 3.5 million have hepatitis C, according to U.S. Health and Human Services. Fewer than half are aware of their status.
Since 2012, deaths associated with hepatitis C outpaced deaths due to all 60 other infectious diseases and in 2014, the number of hepatitis C-related deaths reached an all-time high of 19,659.
“The award is a wonderful recognition from the White House to all the Cherokee Nation providers, health professionals and administration for making this program a success in changing lives and combating hepatitis C,” Dr. Mera said. “In the last couple of years we have tested thousands of patients and cured hundreds who suffer from the hepatitis C virus. We have a lot of work ahead, but I think we have made the invisible epidemic, now visible.”
National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day is an annual CDC-sponsored observance. This year, the U.S. Health and Human Services collaborated with the White House Office of National AIDS Policy and Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Hepatitis Testing Day event to highlight the impact of viral hepatitis in the United States.