By Bill Picture
October 31, 2008
As representative for the 15th Congressional District of Calif., Mike Honda is well aware of the cost that hepatitis B has on the nation as a result of expensive treatments for liver cancer, hard-to-come-by liver transplants, and the lost productivity to the economy as the disease hits working people in the prime of their careers.
At the same time, because the HBV vaccine is so effective it is being hailed as the “anti-liver cancer vaccine,” Honda is also confident that the fight against hepatitis B can be won.
“We’re talking about a disease that is preventable and treatable if it’s diagnosed in its early stages,” Honda says. “This is about preventing human suffering.”
Recognizing that the tools necessary to stop the spread of hepatitis B and prevent HBV-related deaths were already at doctors’ disposal if only organized properly, Honda embarked on a crusade to increase awareness of the disease among APIs, for whom hepatitis B and liver cancer are the greatest health disparity.
Honda’s first attempt to break the silence surrounding the disease happened in 2006, when the congressman submitted to a hepatitis B test at a public- screening day held in San Francisco.
In 2007, Honda and fellow congressmen from New York and Pennsylvania introduced a resolution to support the very first National Hepatitis B Awareness Week. The program’s goal was to educate communities across the nation about hepatitis B and promote the benefits of screening, vaccination and early treatment.
“We must educate ourselves and our loved ones about this devastating disease,” Honda explains. “Testing and vaccination are critical to stemming the tide of this health crisis. And treatments are available. Hepatitis B diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence.”
Later that year, Honda co-wrote a bill calling for the development of a national plan for the prevention, control and medical management of hepatitis B. The bill, the first ever to address hepatitis B at the national level, sought to boost immunization rates nationwide and increase federal funding for hepatitis B research, as well as provide funding for the education of high-risk populations, including Asian Americans.
State Rep. Fiona Ma admits that she knew practically nothing about hepatitis B before becoming involved in the SF Hep B Free campaign.
Like many people infected with the virus, Ma never exhibited any symptoms of the disease. She was shocked when, after submitting to a routine blood test administered as part of a job application process, she learned that she is chronically infected with hepatitis B.
Ma contracted the disease from her mother via perinatal exposure, a very common means of transmission for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. Ma’s brother later tested positive for hepatitis B as well. But their younger sister, who was born after the hepatitis B vaccine became available, was safely immune. All in Ma’s family remain healthy, and with regular monitoring to detect signs of potential liver damage, they expect to remain so.
“I’m perfectly fine today,” Ma says. “But it’s one of those things that you and your doctor have to monitor very closely because this disease rarely shows symptoms until it’s too late for treatment.”
Ma became aware of the impact of hepatitis B on the Asian and Pacific Islander American community: An estimated one in 10 APIs is infected with chronic hepatitis B, compared to one out of 1000 in the general population. After learning of the challenges that lack of awareness, cultural differences and language barriers present in efforts to screen, vaccinate and treat APIs for the disease, Ma set out to increase public awareness within her community.
In 2006, shortly before vacating her seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Ma wrote a resolution calling for the screening and vaccination of all API residents in San Francisco. The resolution was passed and signed into law by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in Nov. 2006, laying the groundwork for the San Francisco Hep B Free campaign.
As a state assemblywoman, Ma has since written a similar bill calling for the creation of state-funded pilot programs for hepatitis B prevention and management in Los Angeles and the S.F. Bay Area.
“This disease is treatable and preventable,” Ma explains. “But many people are unaware that they may be infected with hepatitis B, like I was. Through raising awareness and directing resources, we can end the disproportionate impact that the disease has on Asian Americans.”