NEW YORK – The statistics are overwhelming to digest: one in ten Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live with chronic Hepatitis B and two-thirds of those who are infected are not aware of their status.
Globally, hepatitis B virus infection is the primary cause of cancer after tobacco use and, if untreated, an estimated 15 percent to 25 percent of those infected will die from a related condition. Among U.S. populations, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of liver cancer (up to 7.2 times higher than non-Hispanic whites).
Hepatitis B virus is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood, semen or other body fluid. A pregnant woman infected with the virus can pass it to her unborn child. There are a variety of drugs now available to treat chronic hepatitis B, which can slow or prevent damage to the liver.
“Be About It” is a documentary directed by Christopher Wong, which chronicled the lives of Bay Area reporter/news anchor Alan Wang and Fil-Am athlete AJ Jabonero as they battle chronic hepatitis B was screened in New York recently to coincide with July 28 as World Hepatitis Day. Medical experts and community advocates joined forces to raise awareness of a disease that affects as many as two million Americans.
Up to one million Asian Americans have hepatitis B, half of all the cases in the country today and way more than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. While anyone can contract hep B, people of Asian descent bear the heaviest burden, representing nearly three quarters of individuals affected worldwide.
Shawne Jabonero Lopes is a first-generation Filipino American living with hep B. Both Shawne and her brother AJ, contracted the virus from their mother at birth. Shawne’s viral loads are currently undetectable, and she has a chronic form of the disease that is regularly monitored to detect potential liver damage. Her father and brother, however, had high viral loads, and eventually both of them developed liver cancer.
When her brother AJ was three years old, he had to be brought to a hospital and the doctors told the family that the young boy had jaundice. Everyone in the family was tested as well and the results showed that they all had hep B. But that was just it. At the time, Shawne and her family were not aware of the serious risks associated with hep B.
“It wasn’t clear what that meant then. We didn’t understand that we could potentially die from it. I grew up being told that I was a carrier of the virus,” Shawne told the Asian Journal. Their dad passed away in 2005 due to liver cancer yet they still did not make the connection with hep B. “We had an idea but we just thought that he was unhealthy,” she added.
Shawne recently became an advocate to raise awareness and empower people to get screened and know their status. She and AJ had no idea how to navigate the situation they were in, no one told them that they were still at risk, that they had to consult a liver doctor and that they had to monitor their liver.
But on their own, they tried to get healthier. AJ for example experimented with vegetarianism, got into endurance athletics and partied a lot less, according to Shawne. He also ate a lot better and exercised a lot.
In August 2014, AJ even joined and finished his first Iron Man competition after doing a number of triathlons. He began complaining about pain in his abdomen and chest around November and by December, a tumor was found and he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
“Spreading the word and helping others is something AJ inspired me to do,” Shawne said. “This film and my advocacy work are a great tribute to my brother and his fight.”
Shawne is a devoted wife and loving mother to her 3-year-old son. She recently obtained her Masters of Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is currently working as a board certified acupuncturist and herbalist. She looks forward to using her educational and personal life experiences to help others to live a healthy and balanced life.
Hep B can be detected and diagnosed with a simple blood test, and health officials hope to impart the importance of screening since people with chronic hep B usually do not experience any symptoms until advanced liver diseases has already developed.
Chronic hep B can slowly destroy the liver over many years – even decades – without producing symptoms. It may cause life-threatening complications including liver cancer or cirrhosis, which is severe liver scarring.
U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, founder of the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus, has been staging a long fight to educate Asian Americans and help end hepatitis B, a disease which disproportionately affects the Asian American community.
“By educating our community, and increasing access to testing services, we can help those who are infected address the disease earlier, and take measures to keep from passing it on to their children,” said Honda. “As Asian Americans, it is the responsibility of all of us to get tested ourselves, and to take action to educate our communities about this disease.”
In 2015, Honda offered an amendment to increase funding for the Viral Hepatitis Division at Center for Diseases Control (CDC) by $31.3 million to improve their public education programs.
According to the CDC, Hepatitis B is common in many parts of the world, with an estimated 350 million people living with the disease worldwide. In the US, an estimated 1.2 million Americans are infected. However, hepatitis B disproportionately affects Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders because it is especially common in many Asian and Pacific Island countries. While AAPIs make up less than 5% of the total U.S. population, they account for more than 50% of Americans living with chronic hepatitis B.