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Group Works To Spread Awareness Of Hepatitis B In Asian Communities

Evening Edition

Above: Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant group in California. They’re also disproportionately affected by the potentially deadly liver disease known as Hepatitis B. Most people who are infected with the Hepatitis B virus don’t know it. That’s why doctors and pharmacy students at UC San Diego are trying to spread the word in the Asian community. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg says their efforts are starting to pay off.

Aired 7/1/13 on KPBS News.

There's a high prevalence of hepatitis B among Asians, but awareness of the disease is low. Some local doctors and pharmacy students are trying to change that.

— Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant group in California. They’re also disproportionately affected by the potentially deadly liver disease known as hepatitis B.

Most people who are infected with the hepatitis B virus don’t know it. That’s why doctors and pharmacy students at UC San Diego are trying to spread the word in the Asian community.

At the Vietnamese Seventh-Day Adventist Church in San Diego’s Fairmount Park neighborhood, a health fair is underway.

People are offered screenings for diabetes and blood pressure, they can consult with a doctor, but the event’s main focus is hepatitis B.

That’s because while Asians make up less than 5 percent of the population in the U.S., they account for more than half of all hepatitis B cases.

About one out of 12 Asians has the virus. Even so, and despite the fact that the disease is treatable, awareness in the community is low.

Dr. Binh Tran, founder of the Asian Pacific Health Foundation, said there are some cultural barriers to overcome.

"People do not want to know that they have hepatitis B because it has some stigma to it," Dr. Tran explained. "And sometimes in the culture from here, we don’t talk about our diseases ... And the language barrier. Sometimes when we go, and they cannot be understood."

Fourth-year UC San Diego pharmacy student Sandy Chong, one of the event organizers, said this kind of outreach to the Asian community is crucial.

"They may not be that familiar with all the background, such as transmission, what are some treatments available, how they can prevent it, but they are very interested in learning more about it," Chong said. "So that’s why we’re trying to educate more people, and let then know where they can go to get more information."

Hepatitis B is a liver disease that’s often transmitted from infected mothers to infants at birth. It can also be spread through unprotected sex or contact with contaminated blood.

The virus can be prevented through a series of three injections, usually given in childhood. But access to the vaccine has been limited in some parts of the world.

More than 400 million people are infected worldwide.

The World Health Organization recently held a session on hepatitis B at its annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr. Dirceu Greco directs AIDS and viral hepatitis programs for the government of Brazil. He said the disease can lie undetected in the body for decades.

"In a way, it looks like HIV. It may stay for a long time without any symptoms. And when we finally diagnose it because of symptoms, usually, it’s very late," Dr. Greco said.

Hepatitis B can cause liver cancer and cirrhosis. The disease is linked to more than 1 million deaths a year.

Even so, the virus doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Charles Gore, president of a patient-driven group called the World Hepatitis Alliance, can't figure out why it hepatitis B flies under the radar.

"It’s actually inexplicable, that it has such a low priority. And so we’re really committed to try and change that," Gore said.

Gore added people need to know that hepatitis B can be treated. But he said the first step is finding out whether someone is infected.

"That’s a critical issue," he pointed out. "This is probably the biggest problem we face at the moment, is trying to reach the undiagnosed and get them to get tested."

That’s what the health fair at the San Diego church is all about.

All of the people at the fair who get tested for hepatitis B will get their results mailed to them in a week. Those who test positive will get a phone call, and information on where to go to get care.

UC San Diego liver specialist Robert Gish explained the disease can be treated by taking a pill once a day.

"The chance of controlling the infection and clearing the blood of the infectious virus is over 95%," Dr. Gish said. "Now it’s not a cure; we don’t have a cure for hepatitis B yet. We’re going that direction, and this is at least a way to suppress and control, change how the patient’s outcome is, change their infectivity. So, it’s very effective therapy and it’s very safe."

So far this year, members of the team from UC San Diego have organized 12 community health fairs. All told, they’ve screened more than 500 people for hepatitis B.

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