Hepatitis B is often deemed the “silent killer” due to its widespread impact, lethality and, most of all, the fact that many people don’t recognize its severity.
It is estimated that approximately 260 million people have chronic hepatitis B. In comparison, HIV/AIDS affects only an estimated 35 million people. Unless the people diagnosed with hepatitis B get the appropriate treatment, one in four will die of liver cancer or liver disease.
What is hepatitis B? In short, it’s a virus that targets the liver, the organ directly responsible for breaking down food, processing blood and various other functions. When hepatitis B infects the liver cells, the body often fights back by killing the infected cells, but not without damaging the liver in the process. While most hepatitis B cases are acute and the problem resolves itself within a few months, some patients may develop chronic hepatitis B.
For those infected, chronic hepatitis B can cause liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, liver failure and/or premature death. Unfortunately, hepatitis B can be asymptomatic, meaning people infected with it may not even know they have the disease until it is too late.
Within the U.S., hepatitis B is an infection that many people aren’t informed about. In California, Santa Clara County has the second-highest percentage of chronic hepatitis B cases, just behind San Francisco. Among those infected in Santa Clara County, 94% of them are part of the Asian and Pacific Islander group; in contrast, the Asian and Pacific Islander group only constitutes 36% of the total population. Combined with the staggering statistics that show only 34.6% of people infected with hepatitis B are aware of their condition and 33.3% of those diagnosed receive treatment, hepatitis B is a major health disparity that often goes unaddressed within the community.
Hepatitis B is often stigmatized in society, preventing people from fully understanding the extent of the disease and its gravity. Here are a few of those misconceptions: It’s a common myth to say hepatitis B is a rare disease that not everyone can get. In reality, it is one of the most common infectious diseases on the planet, as it has infected over one-third of the world. Many additionally believe that you should only get tested if you think you’ve been exposed to hepatitis B. On the contrary, you should consider testing if you are currently pregnant and or live in an area with a high number of cases of hepatitis B. And finally, a large misconception around the infection is that it can be transmitted through saliva, water, air, food, sharing utensils or breast feeding. Hepatitis B can only be transmitted through blood, birth and sex.
To prevent hepatitis B, the best action to take is to get screened and vaccinated. Due to its asymptomatic nature, hepatitis B can go unnoticed. While there is currently no cure for those with chronic hepatitis B, diagnosing and monitoring the disease can be life-saving. Those who monitor the disease and receive the proper treatment can still live a long and healthy life.
To get tested, you can contact your doctor, community health clinic or health department. Testing requires only a simple blood test to learn whether you are infected.
For more information on the JoinJade campaign, a global campaign to fight against hepatitis B, and additional resources such as a free risk assessment and a step-by-step procedure for those interested in vaccination, visit joinjade.org.
Nancy Zhang, Alyssa Manche and Abigail Hagan are members the Los Altos High School JoinJade club.