A spin-off of San Francisco Hep B Free program to unite the San Francisco Bay Area in the fight against hepatitis B and liver cancer by raising awareness of the single largest health disparity within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was launched recently in San Mateo County,
Dubbed as Hep B Free – Bay Area, the program also seeks to create a unified voice to encourage screening and vaccination, and improve health outcomes throughout the Bay Area to make the San Francisco Bay Area free of hepatitis B.
San Francisco Hep B Free – Bay Area Program Coordinator Richard So announced that what they underscore is that the San Francisco’s Asian and Pacific Islander residents that comprise of 34 percent of the City’s population bear a disproportionate burden of liver cancer and undetected hepatitis B infection.
“In the United States, 1 in 12 Asian Americans is chronically infected with hepatitis B in comparison to 1 in 1000 non-Hispanic Whites. While Asian Americans constitute only 4% of the population in the United States, they comprise over half of the nation’s 1.2-2 million people chronically infected with hepatitis B. This is one of the greatest racial health disparities in the United States. Fortunately, hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable disease. A safe and effective vaccine has been available since 1982,” shared So. “SF Hep B Free - Bay Area is a new re-branding of SF Hep B Free to unite all Bay Area efforts starting this month. San Mateo County is the first official expansion under this new banner and falls directly under SF Hep B Free leadership. We have a set of metrics we are determined to accomplish in year 1, but we are eagerly planning to surpass that.”
According to a page devoted on Hepa B by the Asian Liver Center at Stanford University, the first non-profit organization in the United States that addresses the disproportionately high rates of chronic hepatitis B infection and liver cancer in Asians and Asian Americans, “Hepatitis B is a vaccine preventable disease of the liver and leading cause of liver cancer worldwide caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV).”
Its initial HBV infection or acute infection symptoms could be so mild that many people including their doctors may not know they have been infected but could result in an illness with symptoms of fatigue, lost of appetite, dark urine and yellow discoloration of the eyes, lasting for several months and even death from liver failure.
It is estimated that 1 in 30 people worldwide or approximately 240 million individuals is living with chronic hepatitis B which causes 60-80% of liver cancer cases worldwide and without appropriate medical management, as many as 1 in 4 people chronically infected with HBV will die from liver cancer or liver failure, resulting in about 600,000 to a million deaths annually.
The campaign was launched in San Francisco in 2007 to promote collaboration between government, healthcare groups, community organizations and businesses to end viral hepatitis B disease and serves as a model nationally for (1) creating public and healthcare provider awareness about the importance of testing & vaccinating Asian and Pacific Islanders for hepatitis B; (2) promoting routine hepatitis B screenings and vaccinations within the primary care medical community; and (3) facilitating access to treatment for chronically infected individuals.
“For us, we wish we did not have to be here. Hepatitis B shouldn't be killing people anymore. A vaccine that can prevent liver cancer induced by hepatitis B has been there since 1982, screening is simple and free but must be requested from your health care provider but there is no cure. Treatment of chronic infection does exist in the form of a 1-a-day pill and is affordable with good insurance,” So added. “It is most commonly spread from mother to child at birth if the child does not get the hepatitis B vaccine soon after birth. It can also be spread from sex, and contaminated injection drug equipment, although this is less common.”
So believes that even with the advancement in research for screening of and vaccine for Hepa B, stigma still exists around hepatitis B for it is still seen in many countries outside the US as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or injection drug disease and associated with promiscuity, unsafe sex and drug use despite the fact that the most common form of transmission is mother to child.
“This stigma that causes fear, shame and discrimination still exists in many cultural circles within the US today. Ignorance of the disease and its method of transmission causes people to fear "catching" hepatitis B by sharing toilets, utensils and living space with an infected person. Furthermore in many Asian Pacific Islander cultures, talking about disease and death is taboo so people remain unaware of the disease,” lamented So. “Education, awareness and engagement are keys for Asian communities including Filipinos. Breaking the silence and the stigma is enormously helpful. In previous efforts, shifting the focus from STDs and drugs to mother to child transmission (which is the biggest cause of infection) was very useful. Getting community members to visit their doctors and get tested is the best way to save lives.”