By Dr. Roger Muller
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Every summer as school approaches, a common theme rings: Make sure your child is fully immunized. One reason for the plea is that children who are not immunized may not attend school. In fact, we’ve heard the cry to immunize so often that the tendency of some is to simply ignore it.
This year, with mounting concern about the return of the H1N1 flu strain, more parents are asking questions about what vaccinations they and their children need. As families get ready to head back to school, it behooves us all to take the necessary steps to fully comply with all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended immunizations.
This is particularly important within the Asian American community, where at least one highly preventable disease — hepatitis B — strikes with alarming frequency.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). It ranges in severity from a mild illness that lasts only a few weeks to a serious long-term affliction with numerous implications. It is transmitted in various ways, including contact with infectious blood, semen, and other bodily fluids.
Besides transmission through high risk activities, such as unprotected intercourse or sharing contaminated intravenous needles, the disease can also be contracted innocently, for instance, from mother to baby during childbirth. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, yellowing of the skin and eyes, nausea, vomiting, fever, weakness, malaise, abdominal pain, joint pain, and dark urine. Left untreated, hepatitis can result in liver disease, cancer, and even death.
The good news is that immunization is a simple means of avoiding this dreaded disease. The CDC recommends that all infants, children, and adolescents who have yet to be inoculated undergo immunization.
The Immunization Action Coalition, which provides vaccination information for health care professionals, is even more succinct regarding Asian Americans. It recommends that all foreign-born people originating from Asia, the Pacific Islands, and other regions with high HBV infection rates be tested for HBV exposure, even if they have already been vaccinated. Those found not to have been infected should be immunized immediately.
There is good reason for this. According to the Asian American Health Initiative (AAHI), hepatitis B is one of the greatest health threats facing the Asian American population. While Asian Americans represent just 4 percent of the U.S. population, more than half of the 1.3 million to 1.5 million known hepatitis B carriers in the United States are Asian Americans.
Additionally, Asian Americans are three times more likely to develop liver cancer caused by hepatitis B than whites, according to the AAHI. Compared to whites, Vietnamese Americans are 13 times more likely to contract hepatitis B, Chinese Americans are eight times more likely to develop the disease, and Korean Americans are six times more likely to become infected.
While the reasons for such widespread exposure are uncertain, surveys have shown that many Asian Americans are simply unaware of the risks of hepatitis B. Poor health screenings and large numbers of undocumented migrants who fail to get checked also contribute to the increase in the disease, studies have shown.
While the disease is complex, the solutions for preventing it are simple: education and vaccination.
The AAHI is doing its part to foster widespread vaccination by increasing knowledge and awareness and by improving access to preventive measures through its Hepatitis B Program. It is also collaborating with other hepatitis B advocacy groups to enhance the overall outreach effort and working with health care providers to improve procedures and policies affecting hepatitis B prevention.
The bottom line is this: if you haven’t been immunized for hepatitis B — or for any other disease that suggests vaccination — contact your doctor or local health department, which can provide a list of free immunization clinics. ♦
For immunization guidelines, refer to your school district or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/vaccines. Dr. Roger Muller is a senior medical director of UnitedHealthcare of the Northwest Region.