- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

Prevalence of chronic hepatitis B among Asian-Americans tested last year in New York was 15 percent — 35 times the national average — and all those infected were born abroad, health officials report.

The 1,836 persons tested were participants in the ongoing Asian American Hepatitis B Program, which provides free screening, vaccination and treatment for hepatitis B infection in a population at risk. Male immigrants from China, ages 20 to 39, who have lived in this country for less than five years are considered high risk.

Nationally, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “suggest that of the total [1.3 million] cases of hepatitis B in the United States, 50 percent are found among Asians,” Dr. Henry Pollack, a pediatrician at the New York University School of Medicine and its Center for the Study of Asian American Health, said yesterday.

Hepatitis isn’t the only concern for health officials worried about the spread of contagious imported diseases. A 2004 CDC report found that “immigration is a major force that sustains the incidence of tuberculosis” in the U.S. and other developed nations. In this country, the report said, the TB rate among foreign-born residents is nearly nine times higher than the rate for U.S.-born people.

In 2003, about a quarter of foreign-born TB patients were from Mexico, and a third were from the Philippines, Vietnam, India and China, the CDC said.

Also, the availability and widespread use of an effective measles vaccine has reduced incidence in the U.S. to fewer than 100 cases yearly. “Almost all” measles cases are imported from countries such as Japan, Germany and Italy.

The hepatitis study was published in the current issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Like AIDS, hepatitis B infections can spread perinatally and by sexual contact and tainted blood.

Dr. Pollack said yesterday that perinatal transmission is the most common mode in China, which has the world’s largest hepatitis B problem. Risks from hepatitis B are greatest for those infected early in life.

“Hepatitis B is a silent disease, like hypertension, and sometimes people don’t know they have it until they develop [life-threatening] symptoms of chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer, at age 40 or 50,” he explained.

Dr. Pollack said in the report that 15 percent to 40 percent of those who acquire hepatitis B early in life will develop chronic liver disease.

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