State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma admits that she knew practically nothing about hepatitis B before becoming involved in the SF Hep B Free campaign. Like many persons infected with hepatitis B, 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, is 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,” she 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.”
After becoming aware of the impact of hepatitis B on the Asian and Pacific Islander American community [an estimated 1 in 10 APIs is infected with chronic hepatitis B, compared to 1 in 1000 in the general population] and learning of the challenges that lack of awareness, cultural differences and language barriers present to 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 November 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 hepatitis B prevention and management pilot programs in Los Angeles and the 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.”
This article will be featured in Sing Tao Daily, World Journal and AsianWeek.com during the month of May as part of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.