The Seattle Chinese School Screening and Vaccination Program. • Courtesy Photo
The Seattle Chinese School Screening and Vaccination Program. • Courtesy Photo

In the United States, about 2.2 million people are believed to be chronically infected with hepatitis B, though the true prevalence may be underestimated as immigrants from countries where chronic hepatitis B is endemic have been under-represented.

Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities are among them. Despite making up only 5% of the total U.S. population, Asian Americans account for 50% of Americans living with chronic hepatitis B infection. About 1 in 12 Asian Americans have hepatitis B, and 2 out of 3 of them do not know they are infected as people with chronic hepatitis B often have no symptoms. Unmanaged chronic hepatitis B increases risk of developing liver cancer. Asian Americans have some of the highest rates of liver cancer—13 times higher in Vietnamese Americans, eight times higher in Korean Americans, and six times higher in Chinese Americans than Caucasian Americans.

Hepatitis B is a serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. It is transmitted by direct contact with blood and body fluids of a person who has the virus. And, it can be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth. In 15-40% of people infected, hepatitis B may lead to serious damage to the liver, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and death.

The only way to know if you have the hepatitis B virus (HBV) is through a simple blood test, though it is not a regular test of the annual medical exam. So it is important that you ask your doctor for a hepatitis B blood test which is covered by most health insurances. Although there is no cure for hepatitis B, it is treatable and vaccine preventable. The test results will determine whether you need the vaccine to prevent future infection, to start treatment, or if you are already immune.

To address these health disparities, International Community Health Services (ICHS), a nonprofit community health center, sponsors the Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington (HBCW), which advocates for hepatitis B awareness and produces culturally sensitive, multilingual materials to educate API and other refugee and immigrant communities about chronic hepatitis B. The coalition envisions a Washington State free of new hepatitis B infections, where all people know their HBV status, all HBV care provided is culturally competent, and HBV outcomes are equitable and disparities reduced. It seeks to impact health care systems, patient’s/community members at risk and health care providers. Through education, screening, and vaccination, it seeks to prevent transmission of hepatitis B especially in the area of perinatal HBV, to ensure linkage to care for those managing chronic HBV, and to ensure that all care accessed is culturally sensitive.

HBCW partners with the Washington State Department of Health’s Perinatal Hepatitis B Prevention program that focuses on preventing the spread of hepatitis B virus from infected mothers to newborn infants.  

May was Viral Hepatitis Awareness Month. To recognize this, ICHS and the coalition convened a community forum on May 26 at the New Holly Gathering Hall. The forum focused on understanding factors that influence hepatitis B screening behavior in the immigrant and refugee communities.  

For more information on hepatitis B, visit http://www.ichs.com/health-services/hepatitisb.

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