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Warning of a silent killer

Campaign aims to alert Asian-Americans to hepatitis danger.

By BLYTHE BERNHARD
The Orange County Register

WESTMINSTER - Tanh Phan thinks he got hepatitis C decades ago in Vietnam, when nurses used the same needles to vaccinate hundreds of children.

Today, he wants others in the Asian-American community to know they are at risk and should be tested for the virus.

"Very few people are knowledgeable about the transmission of hepatitis B and C and how serious it is," Phan, 51, said Sunday at his Westminster home.

Although hepatitis can infect anyone, it is most common in the Asian community. While Asian-Americans make up less than 4 percent of the U.S. population, they represent more than 55 percent of the 1.3 million Americans infected with chronic hepatitis B.

The hepatitis virus comes in different forms and attacks liver cells, causing scarring. The more serious forms, hepatitis B and C, can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer. Many patients will require a liver transplant.

One out of eight Vietnamese-Americans suffers from chronic hepatitis B. Of those, 25 percent will develop liver failure or liver cancer.
"A lot of people are going to die and suffer if we don't do something now," Dr. Christopher Xuan Duong Bui said at a hepatitis awareness campaign kickoff last week in Westminster.

Because hepatitis is more prevalent in Asia than North America - mainly due to unsanitary medical practices - those born in Vietnam are more likely to have contracted the disease from their mothers at birth.

Hepatitis initially does not cause any symptoms, so it is important for those at high risk to be screened for the disease before it becomes more serious. The disease can be treated with drugs, but herbal treatments are not recommended, doctors said.

Phan, a computer systems analyst, tried herbal remedies for 18 months without success. He now takes interferon injections and drugs to help his liver cells produce enzymes that counteract the virus.
Besides mother-to-child transmissions, the disease can be passed through unsafe sex and nonsterile acupuncture, tattoos, drug needles and blood transfusions. The virus cannot be caught through casual contact.

There is a vaccine for hepatitis B, recommended for all children and those at high risk of contracting the disease - Americans of Asian descent, intravenous drug users and health-care workers who come into contact with blood.

Dr. Bichlien Nguyen of the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation stressed the importance of raising awareness about hepatitis at the campaign event.

"Tell your friends, please tell your community, please tell everybody about this silent killer," Nguyen said.

Please call us at 714-751-5805 to learn about our next screening event.