Today commemorates World Hepatitis Day bringing attention to viral hepatitis which causes 1.34 million deaths a year. An estimated 290 million people are unaware of their infection and at high risk for serious liver disease and liver cancer. In Asia, hepatitis B is the biggest threat causing 60-80% of liver cancer worldwide. We sat down with Richard So from SF Hep B Free – Bay Area to talk about why this disease matters so much to the Filipino community both in the Philippines and here in the Bay Area.
Q1: Why should we care about hepatitis B?
A1: 1 in 12 Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants has chronic hepatitis B, usually unknowingly contracted at birth from their mother. Thus 2 out of 3 people with the disease have no idea they have it and don’t do anything to treat it but hepatitis B is the number 1 cause of liver cancer and is a silent killer meaning most people who are infected do not feel sick until it is too late. By the time patients feel pain it is usually late stage liver disease or cancer and patients usually have about a year to live.
Q2: How does hepatitis B affect Asians and Filipinos here and abroad?
A2: Almost 1 in 3 Bay Area residents is Asian and in the San Francisco Metro Area, there are more than 300,000 Filipinos. As you know, Daly City itself has one of the highest numbers of concentrated Filipinos outside the Philippines. A study published in 2018 estimates that prevalence in the Philippines has stayed stubbornly high, close to 10% (1 in 10 people). The study indicates that more than 10 million Filipinos are chronically infected with hepatitis B, but only 3% are diagnosed and less than 1% are being treated. Given the high rate of infection and extremely low rate of diagnosis and treatment in the Philippines, Filipino immigrants are especially likely to be infected with hepatitis B and not know it. This puts them at a high risk for liver cancer.
Q3: This sounds dangerous. How do people contract this disease?
A3: Hepatitis B is spread through blood and sex but most Asians and Pacific Islanders contract the disease during birth from infected mothers. It is this early infection as an infant that causes the disease to become chronic and make you 100x more likely to get liver cancer. 1 in 4 people who have chronic hepatitis B will develop liver cancer or serious liver complications that end in death.
There is a myth that this disease is only prevalent in people who are promiscuous or drug users but this is not true. Again, most Asians who are infected are infected by their mothers unknowingly.
Q4: Okay so who should be tested, how do we protect ourselves and fight this disease?
A4: Get Educated, Get Tested, Get Vaccinated. The biggest at-risk group is immigrants born in Asia including the Philippines. All age groups are at risk. Asians and Filipinos born in the US are at less risk but still advised to get tested. Protect yourself, your family and your friends. Getting tested and vaccinated for hepatitis B is easy and is usually free! As a preventative health service, it is free under most forms of insurance, Medical and Medicaid. The best way to get tested is to ask your doctor- this allows for follow up care should you need vaccination or treatment if you are infected. If you do not have a medical provider or insurance, you can get tested for free at the San Mateo County Health Department or North East Medical Services. Both will screen you free of charge. If you are uninsured, vaccination can also be free depending on income.
Q5: What happens if I am infected? Is it serious?
A5: Being infected is NOT a death sentence at all. If caught early and managed with a doctor most people live full healthy lives. Follow up treatment is very manageable through bi-yearly visits with a liver specialist to monitor the liver and a pill-a-day medication that may be prescribed.
Q6: What if I have more questions?
A6: We recommend talking to your doctor visiting us at www.sfhepbfree.org or calling us on our help line 415 336-2629. Our organization is called SF Hep B Free-Bay Area. We serve both San Francisco and San Mateo County, and our mission is to raise awareness for hepatitis B and the liver cancer it causes.