Fighting a Silent Killer

Hepatitis B in the Asian-American Community

California State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma speaking in San Francisco on Sept. 17, 2010.
SAN FRANCISCO, September 17, 2010 - Despite the introduction of a Hepatitis B vaccine 30 years ago, the virus remains a serious disease among Asians and Asian-Americans, who account for 76 percent of cases worldwide.

Asia Society Northern California recently invited a panel of doctors and community leaders to discuss ways to address the problem in the Asian American community at an event held at University of California San Francisco's Mission Bay campus.

Speaking with moderator Dr. Marion Peters, Chief of Hepatology at UCSF, the discoverer of the virus and 1976 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Dr. Baruch Blumberg, said that the vaccine had saved an estimated 25 to 30 million lives worldwide, 3 million of those from China. But the work is far from complete.

According to Dr. Samuel So of the Stanford Asian Liver Center, Hepatitis B is the "silent killer," particularly among Asian-American men. One in four Hepatitis B carriers will die from liver disease or liver cancer without treatment, but symptoms often don't arise until it is too late. So said a simple and affordable blood test is all that is needed to identify carriers before the disease progresses.

Community leader Ted Fang, director of AsianWeek Foundation, argued that while the virus disproportionately affects the Asian community, it also affects the public at large and must be addressed on a wider scale. He called for a "full spectrum" approach involving policy makers, insurance companies, and doctors, such as that employed by San Francisco's Hep B Free Campaign.

Around the world, efforts to address the Hepatitis B crisis have stalled during the economic recession, though. According to So, "We fail to actually implement a worldwide program because of lack of resources [and] political will," he said.

State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma said that social pressures also prevent Asians and Asian-Americans from getting screened. Speaking of her personal experience as a chronic carrier of the virus, Ma said that her condition went untreated for years until she met Dr. So, who encouraged her to get tested. After her own mother's harrowing experience with the disease, Ma decided that more needed to be done to inform the Asian community of the dangers of the disease and the ease of being tested.

"It's about realizing that we have to talk about it," said Ma, "It's not a stigma, it is a real disease and there are treatments out there."

Reported by Carlos Cajilig, Asia Society Northern California