Many Chinese immigrants who come to New York arrive only to find that they have a stow-away swimming through their bloodstreams: the hepatitis B virus. A study performed by NYU showed that East Asian immigrants in NYC have a higher risk of being infected by the bug than other Americans. And retailers are cashing in – herbal remedy shops in Flushing, Queens are suddenly flooded with remedies to help purify the liver – the main target of the virus.
Of the different types of the virus floating about, hep B and C can cause severe liver damage leading to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) as well as liver cancer. These viruses are typically acquired through sexual contact or via contaminated blood products (i.e. transfusions, needle sharing). However, hepatitis B is so endemic to certain parts of Asia, especially China, that many get it through so-called vertical transmission (babies acquiring it from mom). A large part of the difficulty in treating the virus is the stigma attached to it within the Chinese community and the accompanying misperception that there is no treatment.
So what can you do to avoid the virus? The obvious activities to avoid are using dirty needles and unprotected sex. Folks who work in healthcare or who plan on traveling to endemic areas are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated. Check out the CDC travel site to see what shots you may need depending on destination.