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Hepatitis B Rates Higher in East Asian Immigrants

East Asian-born adults living in New York City are more likely than the general population to be infected with Hepatitis B, according to a new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A research team from New York University Medical School screened 2,000 Asian-born adults for Hepatitis B, a blood disease that is transmitted at birth from an infected mother or, like AIDS, contracted through sex, needle sharing or exchange of blood.

The infection rate among the Asian-adults was 15 percent -- 30 times the rate for the general U.S. population. Study author Henry Pollack says that some immigrant groups within the Asian community suffer even higher rates of infection. "We found that those that were born in China had an infection rate which was 21 percent. That was much higher than normally thought," he says. "In China the overall rates are officially given at 10 percent."

Immigrants bring Hepatitis B to the United States from countries where the disease is endemic. Pollack says rates are low in the U.S. population because, for the past 20 years, Americans have routinely vaccinated their children at birth. "And it has been very, very effective," he says, adding that some countries in East Asia have also had success with vaccinating children at birth. "Taiwan has instituted this vaccine program for the last 20 years and their rates are much lower than in mainland China, and it has only been recently that there has been a much greater effort made to impose this neo-natal vaccinations."

Hepatitis B can lead to liver damage and liver cancer. But the disease is a silent killer. Persons can carry it for decades without knowing it and only a small percentage survive after a late diagnosis.

According to the CDC study, many Asian-born adults are unaware they might be carriers. Researcher Henry Pollack says early screening is the most effective tool to fight the disease for those not vaccinated as children. "And I think that any person who is born outside the United States and in an area where there is a high prevalence such as Asia -- but also Eastern Europe and Africa -- they should be tested for Hepatitis B."

Pollack says the health care costs from Hepatitis B can be enormous and suggests more community programs that promote awareness, screening and treatment. While the CDC study was limited to New York, screening programs in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco also report disproportionately high rates of Hepatitis B among Asian immigrants.