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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 29, 2010

Written by C.N.

The Importance of Hepatitis B Among Asian Americans

I am lending my support to efforts by many in the medical and public health community to urge the federal government to direct necessary resources to fight the infection and spread of Hepatitis B among the Asian American population. San Francisco Hepatitis B Free Co-Founder Ted Fang & California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma elaborate on the details of this effort:

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its priority issues in a list of “six winnable battles,” including HIV/AIDS, obesity and nutrition, traffic accidents, and teen pregnancy. Viral hepatitis was not included on this list.

Asians are the only racial group in which cancer is the number one killer. Liver cancer and hepatitis B liver disease are the greatest health disparities for Asians. Hepatitis B attacks the liver when active, and is one hundred times more infectious than HIV. Left untreated, the disease can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. 80% of liver cancer cases worldwide are caused by Hepatitis B. 1 out of 10 Asian Pacific Islanders is infected.

The Centers for Disease Control’s new prioritization of ‘six winnable battles’ demonstrates the CDC’s poor track record towards achieving health equity for all Americans. Community groups on the frontline in the battle against hepatitis B and liver cancer say that the CDC’s new priorities could stymie their efforts to increase public awareness of the diseases, as well as lessen their chances of securing the funding necessary to implement effective and comprehensive prevention programs.

We need to get people to get tested, treat those who have it and vaccinate those who haven’t been exposed. We have a vaccine that works and drugs to manage it. The problem is, more than half of the people who have it don’t even know it. Hepatitis B has been called a “silent killer” because infected individuals often exhibit no symptoms until the liver has been compromised, limiting the effectiveness of available treatments. Early detection is key and the blood test used is both simple and inexpensive. However, few physicians routinely test patients for Hepatitis B.

The CDC has yet to explain why hepatitis B and liver cancer were not included on the list of agency priorities. CDC representatives, including Director Dr. Thomas Frieden have not commented on community concerns. The CDC only has $7.3 million allocated to national Hepatitis B and C prevention. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) has introduced a Liver Cancer Bill calling for $600 million to be allocated for national interventions. The bill has 75 co-sponsors.

To get more funds from the government, the public needs to speak up, convince policymakers that it’s important to them, and demand that something be done. The problem is, the public isn’t even aware that Hepatitis B poses a significant risk to public health, even though it affects millions of Americans. Further lessening the chances of a big enough uproar being
raised to force politicians’ hands is the fact that half of those infected with Hepatitis B are Asian & Pacific Islanders, whose cultures do not encourage activism. 1 in 4 APIs diagnosed with Hepatitis B will die of liver cancer unless they receive treatment.

Since there is no public outcry, therefore, no political will to address it. We must do better for all Asian Pacific Americans at risk and affected by Hepatitis B.

Several members of Congress have also signed onto an open letter to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention urging them to take the threat to Hepatitis B more seriously.

I join many others in asking the CDC why they have not allocated for funds for fighting Hepatitis B — as Ted Fang and Fiona Ma’s statement above notes, the CDC has only allocated $7.3 million for this effort when it should be several times that amount to really be effective. Hepatitis B is a disease that affects Americans from all backgrounds although Asian Americans are at particular risk.

Considering the growing population of Asian Americans, along with the increasingly frequent and important transnational ties between Americans from all backgrounds and Asia, I urge the CDC, the Department of Health & Human Services, and all state and federal agencies involved to give efforts to fight Hepatitis B the attention and resources that it deserves.