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Hepatitis B: The Real Killer Is Silence

by Amy Ta
Dec 6, 2010

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Amy Ta

My friends and family say the amount of worrying I do is unhealthy. But, rest assured, there's one thing I don't worry about: getting sick. I don't bother with 'flu shots. In fact, I haven't had the 'flu, a fever or even a cold since high school. Maybe it has something to do with my daily jogging and green tea-drinking. Whatever the reason, I'm pretty proud of immune system. But I just realized that I shouldn't get too confident.

In Tell Me More's "Behind Closed Doors" segment today, Michel Martin talked about a "silent disease" - one with symptoms you can't see or feel.

Until it's too late. And "too late" means liver failure or liver cancer - two conditions that Hepatitis B can lead to, if it goes untreated.

The Centers for Disease Control report that Hepatitis B affects more than a million people in the US. Half of those diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis B are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and most were infected before arriving to the U.S.

Wait ... what?

That was my immediate reaction. It was unnerving news for me because I was born in Vietnam and came to the US in the early 1990s.

So, I'm very vulnerable. And very embarrassed.

Why did I not know about something so widespread in my ethnic community, until now? Probably because no one really talked about it.

So, I was glad to hear more from Tell Me More's guest Dr. Jennifer Lee, who chairs the Board of Directors of The Hepatitis B Initiative of Washington, DC. She explained that the Hepatitis B virus is endemic to Asia and parts of Africa, and is spread through mother-to-child transmission, sex and blood transfers. Most people recover from the acute infection, but others develop chronic Hepatitis B and end up dying from it.

Our second guest, Leslie Hsu Oh, had a brother and mother who died from the disease. She wrote a book about her son's struggle with cancer but never mentioned that he had Hepatitis B - or that she, too, was infected. She tried fighting alone, in silence.

That's the thing with us, Asians - or at least, with me.

I would rather solve my problems alone, whatever they may be. Sometimes, I say it's because I don't want to burden anyone else. But honestly, I'm just trying to save face. I don't want to seem weak. And sometimes I don't want to bother explaining things to people who are quick to judge.

But I learned that Hepatitis B can't be fought alone. You need educators, physicians and others who lend support, without the pity. And it's crucial for someone of my ethnic background to be tested for the virus.  I was vaccinated after coming to America as a kid but I might still be at risk because the vaccine doesn't help someone who has the virus. I need to find out if I was infected back in Saigon.

So regardless of how healthy I think I am now, being tested will put me in better shape. Ending the mystery of my status - whether I have Hepatitis B or not - will give me one less thing to worry about.

Amy Ta is an editorial assistant with Tell Me More

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