“B Smart Now,” a hepatitis awareness event hosted by biotechnology company Gilead, took place July 16 at Revere Hotel. The event brought awareness to World Hepatitis Day on July 28 and included a panel with two doctors, a nurse practitioner, two students and a community health representative spoke about hepatitis in the Asian American community.
According to Dr. Rong Guan, medical director at South Cove Community Health Center, many infected patients show no symptoms of hepatitis. “Eight percent of our Asian patients have hepatitis, so it is part of our screening,” he said.
One in 10 foreign-born Asian Americans have the hepatitis B virus (HBV), but two in three don’t know it, according to Gilead’s data. About 1 million Asian Americans are living with chronic HBV infection, more than any other ethnic or racial group in the United States.
Asian Americans who are chronically infected are at an increased risk of liver cancer, said Dr. Daryl Lau. Without appropriate monitoring and treatment, Asian Americans are 2.7 times more likely to develop liver cancer than Caucasians and 2.4 times more likely to die from the malignancy — the most significant cancer disparity between Asian Americans and Caucasians.
The screening blood test costs $20 and the hepatitis B vaccine costs $25, but there is no cure for hepatitis B, unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis C, said Chhan Touch, a Cambodian nurse practitioner based in Lowell. Hepatitis B treatment requires screening every six months.
“Just 40 percent of Lowell Cambodians are screened for liver, of the 30,000 Cambodians in Lowell,” Touch said. “We need to double the number of people who are screened.”
Team HBV at Harvard’s current president Dylan Tan and former president Shirley Mo spoke about its outreach efforts on campus and in the community. Through this organization, Harvard students partner with Mass. Asians + Pacific Islanders for Health (MAP for Health) for Health and Quest Diagnostics to get more Asian Americans screened.
Leslie Hsu Oh, founder of the Hepatitis B Initiative, spoke about her family’s experiences with hepatitis B. Her brother Jon-Jon had hepatitis B, was diagnosed with liver cancer at age 17 and passed away just after turning 18. Hsu Oh’s mother Auxilia blamed herself for infecting her son and also passed away from liver cancer. Her journalist mother wrote a memoir, “A Whale of a Boy,” and Hsu Oh also wrote a memoir about her family titled “Fireweed: A Memoir.”
“My mother died a few weeks before I turned 21. She died on the day of her 25th anniversary. My father sold everything that reminded him of my mother and brother, then replaced them with a new wife and son,” Hsu Oh said. “Hepatitis B took away my entire family.”
Hsu Oh launched the Hepatitis B Initiative when she was at Harvard in 1997. “Collaborating with students from Boston, Brandeis, Brown, Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Wellesley, we empowered the community to develop their own cultural and linguistically appropriate campaign,” she said. “We offered free hepatitis B screenings and vaccinations at South Cove Community Health Center.”
Some stigmas around treatment are unique to Asian Americans. For example, a diagnosis of liver cancer may be considered a karmic punishment for wrongs committed in a past life, Touch said. Some of his patients also feel they have worked so hard to bring their family to America, they are too tired to undergo treatment, preferring to die instead.
“When I was a fellow 15 years ago, there was no treatment for hepatitis apart from liver transplants,” Guan said. “Now there are so many drugs and vaccines. Awareness is the key.”
This post is also available in: Chinese