Asian Americans at risk of Hepatitis B

May 12, 2008 7:27:37 PM PDT
There's a major effort in the Bay Area this month, to screen people for Hepatitis B -- especially Asian Pacific Islanders, who are disproportionately infected with this potentially deadly disease.

Assemblywoman and majority whip Fiona Ma is not afraid to let everyone in the halls of the State Capitol know that she's a Hepatitis B carrier.

Her mother was a carrier who passed the potentially fatal disease to ma and her brother through pregnancy.

And so I think it's important that I do talk about it and become the poster child for this disease," said Ma.

But Ma is one of the few influential Asians who speak openly about her Hepatitis B infection.

"The Asian culture is very guarded," said Ma.

Doctors say cultural barriers are aiding the spread of this silent epidemic. The Asian Liver Center at Stanford University estimates that one in 10 Asian Americans is chronically infected with Hepatitis B.

"My cousin who is from China, was very upset with me saying, 'Please, don't tell people that you have Hepatitis B. They're going think you're sick. They're not going vote for you,'" said Ma.

Of those chronically infected, meaning the virus is actively attacking the liver, Stanford University estimates one-third will develop liver cancer and cirrhosis. That's because they usually have no symptoms until it's too late.

"Yeah I've had one family member who had liver problems and passed away from that," said Daniel Han from San Francisco.

"So I think the whole attitude I think is something we need to change," said hepatologist Dr. Eddie Cheung.

DR. Cheung is a clinical professor of hepatology at UC Davis. He says there's also a fear of western medicine, and a lack of dialogue that keeps the time bomb ticking until it is too late. He recalls the case of a 30-year-old Asian man about to become a father.

"And I tried to figure out how I can go out and tell this beautiful young lady carrying this child, and say to her this baby is not going to see the father because the father is not going to live, you know," said Dr. Cheung.

There is a treatment for Hepatitis B and there's a vaccine. But you have to know that you're infected in order to treat it.

"Has your doctor ever asked you to be screened?" asked ABC7's Alan Wang.

"No, no he's never asked," said William Cannon from Milpitas.

You can find out with a simple blood test. But most insurance companies will not pay the approximately $200 screening fee.

And that's why Ma has been a catalyst in launching a screening campaign called "Hep B Free," at no cost to the patient.

"Right now Medi-Cal only covers individuals at the latest stage of liver cancer or liver disease, which is too late by that time," said Ma.

Ma is also trying to pass a bill that would have Medi-Cal pay for life saving drugs for the chronically infected. The drugs can halt the virus and prevent liver cancer and cirrhosis.

Now this is the reporter involvement part of the story where I tell you that I and all of my siblings were born with Hepatitis B. I'm the only one chronically infected, but because I know my condition I take a tiny little pill which is probably saving my life.

During pregnancy, Hepatitis B was passed down to me from my mother whose two brothers died from liver cancer. She and her siblings contracted it from their mother in China, where the largest infected population is located.

But by vaccinating my children, I ended one strand of the epidemic cycle.

San Francisco has the highest rate of liver cancer in the entire country. But with Assemblywoman Ma's openness, she hopes more Asians break their silence, speak openly about it and encourage others to screen themselves -- eventually eradicating hepatitis b.

"That is a cultural barrier that we need to break if we're actually going to eradicate this," said Ma.

Hepatitis B Screening:
Saturday May 17
11am-5pm
San Francisco Japan Town
Post Street


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