Making the Invisible Visible: White House Honors Cherokee Doctor for Hep C Work

Dr. Jorge Mera, director of infectious diseases at the Cherokee Nation, was honored at the White House May 19 for the tribe's work curing hepatitis C.
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Dr. Jorge Mera, director of infectious diseases at the Cherokee Nation, was invited to a ceremony at the White House on May 19, National Hepatitis Testing Day, where he was honored for the tribe’s commitment to testing and treating patients for hepatitis C. The efforts are leading to more patients being cured of the disease and living longer lives.

This is the first year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has presented awards to organizations actively testing for hepatitis.

“Increasing testing for hepatitis B and C is a critical part of ensuring good health for all Americans,” Acting Assistant Secretary of Health Karen B. DeSalvo, who presented Dr. Mera with his award, 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.”

With Dr. Mera at the helm, the Cherokee Nation began a hepatitis C elimination project in 2015, and has screened more than 12,000 Native American patients for the disease. Among those who tested positive, more than 300 have been treated and are considered cured of the infection that causes liver disease.

Courtesy Cherokee Nation

Cherokee Nation’s Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. Jorge Mera accepts an award from Acting Assistant Secretary of Health Karen B. DeSalvo at the White House on May 19.

“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 [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], 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 in a press release. “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.”

RELATED: Deadly Hep C Going Untreated in Native Communities

According to the U.S. Health and Human Services, 850,000 Americans have hepatitis B and 3.5 million have hepatitis C, and fewer than half are aware they have it. American Indian and Alaska Native people have “both the highest rate of acute HCV [hepatitis C virus] infection and the highest HCV-related mortality rate of any U.S. racial/ethnic group,” according to the May 26 article, “The Need to Expand Access to Hepatitis C Virus Drugs in the Indian Health Service.”
Since 2012, deaths associated with hepatitis C have 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, according to the CDC.

“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 release. “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.”