Up to 1.5 million Americans are afflicted with hepatitis B, according to The Asian Liver Center at Stanford University in California. But more than half of those infected are Asian Americans.
Making the disease even more dangerous for Asian victims is that they rarely experience any symptoms, allowing hepatitis B to act as a silent killer, said Anna Lok, director of clinical hepatology at the University.
Transmitted through bodily fluids, hepatitis B is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver and over time can lead to liver failure and eventually death.
For Asian Americans, the disease is an endemic health problem, meaning that it is typical for a group. Compared to the 0.3 percent of the general population who are infected, 15 percent of Asians incubate the disease. This makes Asian Americans the population at highest risk for acquiring the virus.
Lok said the reason for this high rate is that many Asian Americans are born with hepatitis B. Other ethnic groups usually contract the virus when they are adults and engage in sexual activity, she added. For these groups, the infection is only acute, lasting less than six months. But since Asian Americans obtain the disease at birth, the infection can last for life, Lok said
“Newborns have very weak immune systems, so when they are infected they have a 90 percent chance of progressing to chronic infection,” she said.
Once the disease becomes chronic and continues to remain active in the liver, the virus will slowly destroy liver cells for the remainder of the victim’s life, Lok said. While the liver will regenerate cells, the organ cannot repair the damage in its entirety, leaving scars on the tissue.
“Scar tissue causes resistance to blood flow and then causes even further problems. Then you don’t have enough liver cells to do metabolism functions, to make proteins. Then you have all this scar tissue blocking blood flows,” Lok said.
Those with chronic infections since birth can expect to feel the culmination of the scarring through symptoms of nausea and abdominal pains from the disease starting at 40 to 60 years of age, Lok said. By then, options for treatment can do little, she added.
Cirrhosis, or severe damage to the liver cells, and liver cancer are the final result of the long-term deterioration. According to the World Health Organization, 25 percent of those with the chronic infection die later from liver disease or liver cancer.
But this endemic among Asian Americans is not something new. For thousands of years, hepatitis B has pervaded through the Asian continent, Lok said. With the large number of chronic infections dating back eons, the disease has become self-sustained among the Asian population, as parents with the chronic infection continue transmitting the disease to their children.
“We don’t know what started it. Once it started, then you have almost a vicious cycle,” she said.
Those victims came to America, expanding the problem’s geography, she added.
Scientists have yet to understand the historical origins of the phenomenon. Yet Lok said the prevalence of the disease might be connected to the different strains of hepatitis B, which show slight genetic variations from one another. Lok added that the different strains are often found in certain population groups, and the strains pertinent to Asian Americans may in some way cause a different human response to the disease.
Since the development of hepatitis B vaccinations, the cycle may be on the verge of breaking as newborns in America are required to be vaccinated.
With a hepatitis B immune globulin — a shot containing a high level of antibodies that can temporarily protect the child upon leaving the birth canal — and a subsequent vaccination, newborns have a 95 percent chance of avoiding the disease.
Despite the vaccinations, many college students are still at risk because newborn vaccinations only began in 1991, Lok said.
Moreover, college campuses tend to be hotbeds for sexual transmitted diseases like hepatitis B, said Robert Ernst, associate director of clinical services at University Health Service.
“Those also susceptible to hepatitis B are people who have had more than one sexual partner in six months, which is very important for students on college campuses,” he said.
Students looking to get tested for hepatitis B can schedule an appointment with UHS. The cost for the test is included in student fees, but the cost for the vaccination ranges from $89.97 to $119.97.
If afflicted with the virus, Lok said treatments such as medications are available that can suppress hepatitis B from doing further damage.
To heighten awareness of the prevalence of hepatitis B among Asian Americans, on Friday, fraternity Pi Alpha Phi sponsored an event tied to the Jade Ribbon Campaign, which aims to educate Asians on the dangers of the disease. Both Lok and Ernst spoke at the event, highlighting the gravity of the situation.
LSA freshman Alex Ly, who attended the event said, “The information was very surprising. I was glad I came here. I plan on getting tested.”
Lok said it’s time for Asian Americans to end the negligence toward the disease and begin prevention.
“The message we want to get out there is, like all medical conditions, early intervention and prevention is the best. If you know that you have a problem, then you know how you can deal with that problem,” she said.
— Daily Staff Reporter Michael Kan contributed to this article.