Some Immigrants In Columbus At Risk For Silent Killer

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An immigrant is screened for Hepatitis B.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)
An immigrant is screened for Hepatitis B.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)

Central Ohio is home to some 70,000 Asian immigrants. And advocates worry a silent deadly disease is hidden in the population. Immigrants from Asia and some African nations face a greater risk for Hepatitis B and may not know they have it. That’s why local health workers are screening them for the contagious disease.

“Do you have a family doctor? Yes, but I don’t know the name of the doctor.”

18 year old Assa Zautam translates health care questions for her neighbor at the Saraga International Grocery store on Morse Road. Zautam is from the newest group of South Asian immigrants called the Butanese-Nepali. Her family is from Nepal but was forced to flee to nearby Butan. The family lived in a refugee camp for two decades before arriving in Columbus this year.

Zautam decides that she will get tested for Hepatitis B.

Signs about the Bfree Columbus project are tacked onto two makeshift desks at the exit of the grocery store. The Ohio Asian American Health Coalition wants to identify and get immigrants tested for Hepatitis B. A phlebotomist is available to draw blood.

Doctors call Hepatitis B the silent killer. The disease is caused by a virus that can damage the liver and potentially kill those infected. It can also spread from mother to child at birth or through infected blood or bodily fluids. So screening is critical.

Head of the Ohio Asian Health Coalition, Manju Sankarappa says immigrants have a much higher rate for the disease in certain foreign born communities-up to 12%, compared to the American population of less than 1%.

“Hepatitis B is a preventable disease. However, people do not know they have it because there is no symptom. You can have the virus, but it may never show up. So that kind of makes you feel you’re feeling fine, so why should you go out and get tested.”

Sankarappa says in many Asian countries people don’t want to talk about Hepatitis B because it’s seen as a sexually transmitted disease. Immigrants who arrive in Columbus directly from their native country are supposed to be checked for Hepatitis B . But, if they move to Central Ohio from another state they may not get tested. Sankarappa says those new to this country have to be vigilant.

“Be proactive, speak to your physician and ask them whether they can test you for the Hepatitis B because it’s not a routine checking for the Hepatitis B virus. So that will be the best thing.”

Among Asians living in Central Ohio, those from China, Cambodia, Laos, Korea and the Philippines are at higher risk for having the disease.

Over the past 2 years in Columbus, 2,000 immigrants have been screened. 120 tested positive. Those who have the Hepatitis B virus can get checkups at no charge at several free clinics in Columbus. They will need to be monitored for the rest of their lives. There is no cure for the disease. Those who test negative can get the vaccine. It’s not known however, how many people have been vaccinated. A $200,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control pays for the screenings.

Ghanaian immigrant John Akrobettoe who works with the BFree Columbus project says many people often say they are too busy to get tested, but, he says one woman at the grocery store stood out for her willingness to get informed about Hepatitis B.

“When I explained to her about the seriousness about Hepatitis, she was willing to do the screening first, before her shopping. So that tells you that maybe she knows about Hepatitis and wanted to take advantage of free screening and free follow up.”

Another immigrant Nigerian Shirley Davis says she wants to play a role informing others they need to be checked for the disease.

“I don’t think we get enough exposure as we should have to get women to participate because the more you get women to participate the more they can reach out.”

Screening efforts appear to be working, the CDC reports that Hepatitis B infection rates among Asian and African immigrants is now at 1 in 12, it was 1 in 10.


    Great Job WOSU!