Free hepatitis B tests offered on campus
February 28, 2008 9:58 AM
Free hepatitis B screenings at SF State next month are the latest effort to stop the spread of the cancer-causing liver disease among San Francisco's Asian population, according to information from a "Pre-Kick Off" event held at the student center this Monday.
One in 10 Asians living in the United States has the life-long hepatitis B infection, and the effects are most catastrophic in areas with high-density Asian populations like San Francisco, said Meredith Bergin, special projects coordinator at Stanford's Asian Liver Center. Non-Asians can also contract the disease, but the current number of those infected is much lower.
At SF State, where Asian students number almost 10,000, approximately 1,000 Asian and students are expected to have the disease. The number climbs to 24,000 people citywide, according to 2007 school enrollment data, the 2000 Census and the Department of Public Health.
Of those infected by the disease, which is transmitted via body fluids, one in four will die from the resulting liver damage, Bergin said.
"Because it's asymptomatic, many people don't know until it's too late," she said.
Many parents of Asian Americans come from countries with high rates of hepatitis B infection, and the most lasting version of the disease is usually passed from mother to child during birth. For those unaware of their own infection, measures to protect their children from the disease are never taken, said Erin Bachus of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
"My dad almost died from it last year," said Kohei Nishida, a 24-year-old Cinema major. To be safe, he said he plans to participate in the free testing.
To be screened and vaccinated as an adult typically costs around $170, but the California Pacific Medical Center will be offering them for free to anyone from March third to seventh on and around the campus, said SF State health educator Ingrid Ochoa.
Screeners will take blood samples to test for the virus, and 30 to 40 percent of those present are expected to need the vaccine, said Jackson Wong, main coordinator of the CPMC.
"Nobody will be turned down," Ochoa said, though Asian students are the targets of the provided treatment.
Despite mandatory and free hepatitis B vaccinations for minors in the United States, some still manage to avoid the procedure. In California, many public and private schools are lax in ensuring that students receive their vaccinations in either kindergarten or seventh grade, Bachus said.
"All my life, I thought I was invincible," said 67-year-old hepatitis B carrier Bok Pon. "Then they said, 'Stop everything--you've got six months."
Commander of his American Legion post, Pon said he felt perfectly healthy when he was diagnosed with hepatitis B and liver cancer one year ago. He bragged that he can still do 100 pushups at a health center seminar earlier this month, but it has been painful chemotherapy that helped him survive for a year longer than expected.
"It's like your whole body goes into a microwave," Pon said of the treatments he has received.
Awaiting a liver transplant, the last chance for those with tough liver cancer, Pon said he spends his time helping to organize Chinatown-area meetings to educate others about the disease.
In China, one of the countries most affected by the spread of hepatitis B, the disease is often poorly understood, Bergin said. Those who are infected face discrimination and are sometimes barred from jobs.
"There's a certain amount of discrimination against carriers in China," she said.
In the United States, attitudes are better, yet misconceptions persist within Chinese and other Asian communities, according to a 2007 study by the Asian Liver Center.
"Hepatitis B is endemic to Asians as HIV is endemic to Africa," Bergin said, adding that the disease affects Asians not because of their genetics or habits but because of the disease's centralization in Asia.
While hepatitis C is arguably worse than B, the "B" strain is 100 times more contagious than HIV and has taken root and spread among Asian populations. "A," another common strain, is the only version that can be transmitted by casual contact but is much less severe. The "A" variant is rarely seen in the United States due to modern sanitation systems, Ochoa said.
Last year, state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma went public about her own hepatitis B infection and announced a bill that would allocate state funding to treating those with the disease. Currently, the State Assembly's Committee on Health is analyzing the bill.
At SF State, the California Pacific Medical Center is fronting $100,000 for the March vaccinations, providing its own clinical staff and equipment for the tests, said Health Center Director Dr. Alastair K. Smith.
The SF State Medical Center, providing services from optometry to HIV screening, is paid for entirely by the $108 included with regular student fees, Smith said.
"A lot of people don't even know where the health center is!" said Ochoa, an SF State alumnus with a master's degree in public health.
The screenings will begin on Monday, March 3, in the Health Center. Treatments will continue throughout the week, alternating daily between the center and the Tower Conference Hall, Ochoa said.
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