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Winter 2007

Asians at Higher Risk for Hepatitis B and Liver Disease

A new UCLA center for treating liver disorders is making an appeal to Southern California’s large Asian American community, whose members are particularly at risk for hepatitis B and the damage it can cause if not diagnosed and treated.

 More than half of the approximately 1.5 million known hepatitis B carriers in the United States are Asian and Pacific Islanders. When left untreated, the virus leads to liver cancer or cirrhosis—scarring of the liver that can result in liver failure —in as many as one in four individuals.

Hepatitis can be transmitted by unprotected sex and sharing needles for IV drug use or tattoos, but it is most commonly passed among Asians from mothers to their infants in the birthing process. “Because the virus is so common in Asia, and most women are not aware that they are carriers, they transmit it to their infants,” explains Steven-Huy Han, M.D., director of the UCLA Asian Liver Center, part of the Pfleger Liver Institute. “Since babies have undeveloped immune systems, when the virus is passed down they almost always become chronic carriers, and by adulthood they are at risk of developing liver cancer or cirrhosis, even if they feel healthy.

” In fact, most chronic hepatitis B carriers experience no symptoms until their liver has been significantly damaged. Thus, Asians need to be tested so that, if they are carriers, they can be monitored and treated. “Six FDA-approved treatments for hepatitis B help minimize the risks of liver damage, but these treatments are underutilized,” says Dr. Han. “We need to get the word out.”

The Asian Liver Center seeks to overcome traditional barriers that have prevented Asian patients, particularly recent immigrants, from seeking testing or treatment. Besides offering comprehensive, state-of-the-art surgical and medical care for all liver disorders, the center is easily accessible to Asian communities. The center is staffed by Asians who speak the native language of most of the patients, and the majority of the physicians are Asian. The center’s physicians and staff members go into Asian communities to consult. Says Dr. Han: “We want to develop a level of trust so that we can be seen as an important resource for doctors and patients.”

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