Chronic hepatitis B, a disease that attacks the liver and can cause cancer, is a real danger for the Valley’s Asian population, and local health activists are hoping to raise public awareness of the issue at an event today.
Hepatitis B affects less than .1 percent of the general population, but about 10 percent of immigrants in the Asian and Pacific Islander community are estimated to have the disease. Some 5,000 Asian-Americans in the Valley alone could be infected, and not know it.
“American people get hepatitis C more. Asian people, so many have hepatitis B but they are always undiagnosed here,” said Dr. Lu Yao, whose practice in Tempe includes working with many Chinese patients. “And if they see American physicians, they don’t even think about that.”
Now, the Asian Pacific Community in Action, a Phoenix group promoting health issues, is seeking to raise awareness of the disease as it hosts events for the city’s first World Hepatitis Awareness Day celebration today.
According to the Census Bureau, the Valley’s Asian population jumped 25 percent from 2000 to 2006. In the East Valley, Chandler’s Asian population has grown the most and the fastest, from 2,153 in 1990 to 7,453 in 2000. Tempe’s Asian population grew from 5,748 to 7,531 in that decade.
Recently, APCA received a grant from the Arizona Department of Health Services to increase awareness of hepatitis B among local Asians and Pacific Islanders.
The program, known as Jade Ribbon Arizona, is one of five across the nation modeled after a program initiated by Stanford University’s Liver Center.
It will include screening, vaccination clinics, a public education campaign and doctor education.
APCA Executive Director Doug Hirano called hepatitis B a “silent epidemic among Asians and Pacific Islanders.”
Hepatitis B is a liver disease, transmitted by direct contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person, and can be transferred to a baby during childbirth.
But since many hepatitis B patients exhibit no symptoms, many sufferers don’t realize they are infected.
That’s why the Jade Ribbon campaign also aims to educate health care providers about the higher incident in Asian patients, so they can test more aggressively.
According to the Pennsylvania Hepatitis B Foundation, most healthy adults who contract the illness will recover. But a smaller number will be unable to get rid of the virus and will develop chronic infections. The same can happen to children who contract the virus.
Patients who have a chronic infection have an increased risk of developing serious liver disease and liver cancer. A vaccine exists, but no treatment can cure it.
Hirano’s group is offering clinics throughout the city for testing, as well as educating the public through ethnic newspapers, Vietnamese and Korean language radio stations and fliers at markets such as Lee Lee’s Asian Market in Chandler.
The hepatitis B campaign is the latest in a string of efforts launched by APCA designed to reach out to a community often ignored by public health groups, Hirano said.
While many health reports have detailed the disparity in health between white Americans and Hispanic or black counterparts, Asian-Americans have remained largely off the radar.
That could be partly because the community is so small — roughly 3 percent of Maricopa County residents identified themselves as Asian or Pacific Islander in the last census, Hirano said.
But it could also be because Asians have been perceived to be a “model health minority,” with good overall health — a common misconception, he said. The category also includes immigrants from a diverse array of countries, with different social and economic backgrounds.
“When you look at numbers for things like diabetes and you lump all Asian Pacific Islanders together, the numbers are fairly low, suggesting they don’t have as much diabetes as whites or Hispanics,” Hirano said. “But when you look at the subgroups, like Hawaiians or Pacific Islander, they actually have twice the rate of diabetes. So then you start seeing disparities.”
That’s why it is important to have someone looking out and organizing targeted health efforts, he said.
That was also the idea behind APCA, when it was formed in 2002, after a local Chinese-American doctor noticed many people asking her about health questions when she was at a local Chinese language school.
“She realized there was a lack of knowledge about health issues and where to get health care, so she started workshops and it sort of ballooned,” Hirano said. “She realized the lack of knowledge was more than just the Chinese community, but also Korean and Vietnamese and other Pacific Islander community so she got the state involved, did some needs assessment.”