What Stands Between Your Family and a Deadly Disease? Safe and Effective Immunizations

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

Are you dreading taking your kids for their back-to-school vaccinations or wondering if vaccines do more harm than good? Let me tell you about my neighborhood.

Three years ago, a neighbor’s children came down with whooping cough (pertussis). It turns out, the parents didn’t believe in vaccinating their kids. All three children were infected as was their elderly grandmother and two other children down the street.

This family’s refusal to get vaccinated against this highly-infectious respiratory disease threatened the health of the neighborhood. Two doors away, a family had a new baby and the infant’s brother played with the infected children. Babies can’t be vaccinated against pertussis until they’re six months old.

Half of all babies who contract pertussis are hospitalized because they can’t clear the heavy mucus from their lungs. Of those hospitalized, 23 percent get pneumonia and 1 percent die.  Before the pertussis vaccine became available, about 9,000 children died from the infection every year. Luckily, the baby wasn’t infected in this micro-epidemic.

Here’s another example why vaccines are worth the discomfort of a shot. My daughter, born in China, didn’t have access to immunizations, including the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine. As a result, she is chronically infected with hepatitis B. Had she been born in a country that immunizes children, she wouldn’t face the 15 to 25 percent risk of dying from liver disease that she faces today.

Immunizations are safe and effective, and they protect our families and our communities, which is why every child should be immunized before they start school this fall. So why doesn’t everyone protect their children?

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Scientist and astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson has a theory about why some people don’t believe science—even when it’s confirmed by objective, clinical data. Examples include conservatives who disavow global warming and, Tyson pointed out, college-educated Americans who don’t vaccinate their children.

In the U.S., it is college-educated parents who make up a large percentage of people who opt out of vaccination. Despite clear, scientific evidence, they believe vaccines pose a higher risk to their children than the diseases they prevent. These parents assume that because so many others immunize their children, these diseases have “gone away” and they don’t have to. It’s a dangerous and arrogant assumption.

Reliance on this “herd immunity” approach, which banks on enough people being immunized so the overall disease risk remains low, doesn’t work. Infectious diseases really never go away, and they come back with a vengeance when a growing number of community members stop vaccinating their children.

The pertussis strain that infected the U.S. and my neighborhood two years ago was a particularly bad one. Researchers believe the vaccine wasn’t 100 percent able to prevent that strain. Viruses mutate and things like this happen. But when it does, having a sizeable portion of a community not immunized acts as an accelerant to an epidemic.

There are already children and adults in every community who can’t be vaccinated (even when they want to be) because of health problems, or they have weak immune systems that do not respond well to immunization, such as the elderly. Herd immunity helps these people with weak immune systems, but it loses its effectiveness when a growing number of people opt out of immunizations and endanger public health.

There is real science confirming the safety and value of immunizations:

  • Before the measles vaccine became available, there were 500,000 measles cases every year in the U.S. and 500 deaths. By 2000, the country had eradicated the infection.  However, in 2014 as more parents opted out of immunizations, the country experienced 667 measles cases in 27 states including an outbreak at Disneyland. Most who caught measles were not immunized.
  • Now let’s look at hepatitis B. According to the CDC, new cases of the deadly liver infection hepatitis B have declined 82 percent since 1991, when universal childhood immunizations became available. Before that, an estimated one in 20 Americans got hepatitis B.

Immunizations have been the medical miracle of the last century. Millions of lives have been saved. In observation of National Immunization Awareness Month this August, make sure your school- or college-bound children are up-to-date with their immunizations. And while you’re at it, check your own immunization record. No one is immune.

Aflatoxin Alert: Moldy Nuts and Corn Increases Your Liver Cancer Risk 60-Times If You Have Hepatitis B

Image courtesy of YaiSirichai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of YaiSirichai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

One of the biggest health threats to people living with chronic hepatitis B is a toxic, nearly invisible mold called aflatoxin found in corn, peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts and pistachios.

People with hepatitis B who eat food with high levels of aflatoxins face a liver cancer risk that is 60-times above average.

In addition to nuts and grains like quinoa, aflatoxin can be found in figs, milk and cheese, soybeans, dried spices and cottonseed. It is less common in rice, as long as rice is hulled, which removes aflatoxin mold.

This toxic mold, produced by a fungus that grows in warm, moist climates, is found at high levels in crops grown in rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and China, where food storage and processing is not closely regulated. Unfortunately, these regions also have high rates of hepatitis B infection.

Low levels of aflatoxins are considered unavoidable in food and animal feed, even when good manufacturing practices are followed. Most countries, including the U.S., allow low amounts of aflatoxin in corn and peanuts. However, some researchers suggest even these low levels can lead to liver damage in people infected with hepatitis B who rely on diets rich in corn, nuts and grains.

Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA has set “actionable limits” (a maximum tolerable level of aflatoxin) for foods like corn and peanuts in order to limit how much aflatoxin reaches the human food chain and livestock feed.

“Chemical methods (to remove aflatoxins) have been developed for peanuts, corn, cottonseed, various tree nuts, and animal feeds,” according to the FDA’s Bad Bug Book’s chapter on aflatoxin. “Chemical methods for aflatoxin in milk and dairy products are far more sensitive than for the above commodities because the aflatoxin (in animals) is usually found at a much lower level.”

Farmers and food suppliers also try to lower mold contamination by keeping crops from becoming overly moist and warm, harvesting food when it’s ripe before mold can develop, and preventing rodents from spreading the mold before and after crops are harvested.

Here are some ways you can limit the amount of aflatoxin in your diet:

Buy only major brands of nuts and peanut, almond,  and other nut butters.

Discard any nuts or grains that look moldy, discolored or shriveled.

Cook foods to reduce aflatoxin levels: However, aflatoxin mold is not entirely destroyed by cooking, roasting and processing, so small amounts can still remain in peanut butter and many processed products.  According to one report, the cooking process and ingredients used to make corn tortillas, however, effectively destroys aflatoxin.

Soaking grains and nuts can reduce aflatoxin levels: Studies show soaking grains before cooking and cooking soybeans at high temperatures also help decrease aflatoxin levels.

Consume grains and nuts as soon as possible, preferably within one to two months of purchase.

Buy produce grown locally, instead of purchasing items shipped from overseas. Studies of organic products sold in the U.S. found their aflatoxin levels to be as safe as commercial products.

Store grains, corn and nuts in cool, dry places or freeze them to prolong freshness

In America, It Takes a Coalition to Combat Hepatitis B

Hep B United Summit members meet with California lawmakers in Washington DC.
Hep B United Summit members meet with California lawmakers in Washington DC.

By Christine Kukka

In late July, during World Hepatitis Day 2016, the fourth annual Hep B United Summit convened in Washington D.C. and dozens of advocates met with federal officials and brainstormed strategies to increase screening, immunization and linking people to care to eliminate hepatitis B across the country.

The Hepatitis B Foundation and the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organization (AAPCHO) established Hep B United in 2011 to address the silent epidemic of hepatitis B. The liver disease infects 2 million people in the U.S., and 67 percent don’t know they’re infected.

Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and African immigrant

Members of the Hep B United 2016 Summit in Washington DC.
Members of the Hep B United 2016 Summit in Washington DC.

communities are among those hardest hit. Crafting a culturally- and liguistically-adept approach on small or non-existent budgets to educate and screen these diverse populations remains a challenge for Hep B United’s  more than 30 community coalitions in 15 states and Washington D.C.

On the upside, the coalition’s organizations have educated 4 million Americans and screened about 40,000. However, large swaths of the country lack outreach efforts to prevent the spread of hepatitis B. For a map and list of Hep B United Summit member organizations, click here.

The coalition’s ongoing hepatitis B prevention efforts mirror HIV and hepatitis C campaigns that have sought to increase education, screening, and linkage to care. But in many respects, Hep B advocates face more challenges:

  • Because there is a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B, many state and federal health officials assume the infection will go away on its own and government resources for screening and prevention have been minimal.
  • Many immigrant populations affected by hepatitis B have unique languages and cultures, which requires careful, individual approaches to each community.
  • Federal healthcare programs often under-funded or inhibit effective prevention work. For example, Medicare currently does not cover the cost of life-saving hepatitis B tests in seniors, many of whom are in high-risk groups because of their ethnicity or personal history. The federal government has proposed to cover screening, but only if it’s ordered in a primary care office.  Some of the most effective screening in high-risk communities often occurs at community-based settings or emergency rooms, far from a primary care office. Summit participants are orchestrating letter-writing to endorse the federal government’s proposed decision to cover hepatitis B screening under Medicare and to convince Medicare officials to broaden coverage of hepatitis B screening.

Summit also participants met with federal officials from the U.S.  Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and the Department of Justice to push for more effective policies and increased funding to fight the world’s most common serious liver infection. One afternoon was spent visiting Congressional representatives to boost lawmakers’ awareness of the terrible toll hepatitis B takes on their constituencies.

“If community organizations can learn from each other and develop effective ways to educate people about hepatitis B and to get them screened and referred to medical care in the early stages of their infection, we can succeed in preventing new cases, save health care dollars and, most importantly, save lives,” said Jeffrey Caballero, AAPCHO executive director and Hep B United co-chair.

The following four hepatitis B advocates were honored at the summit for their work to eradicate hepatitis B:

Alex Shirreffs, Philadelphia's Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator
Alex Shirreffs, Philadelphia’s Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator

Alex Shirreffs, MPH, Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator with the Philadelphia Department of Health. She was recognized for her collaboration with Hep B United Philadelphia to screen area AAPI communities. Her work ensures that hepatitis B remains a public health priority, and she serves as a critical liaison between Hep B United and other Adult Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinators nationwide.

Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, coordinator of Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington
Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, coordinator of Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington

Mohammed Abdul-Kadir, MPH, MSIS, coordinator of the Hepatitis B Coalition of Washington, (now part of International Community Health Services in Seattle), is recognized for his commitment to eradicating hepatitis B in Washington’s AAPI communities by bringing together stakeholders from across the state and providing free screening, education and linkage to care for thousands of individuals.

Hepatitis B civil rights advocate Nadine Shiroma
Hepatitis B civil rights advocate Nadine Shiroma

Nadine Shiroma, a national hepatitis B civil rights advocate from Seattle, has worked tirelessly with the Hepatitis B Foundation to eliminate hepatitis B-related discrimination in the United States. She is recognized for advocacy on behalf of hepatitis B-infected health care students, which resulted in hepatitis B being added as a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The fight now has been taken to the U.S. Department of Defense, which currently bars infected applicants and discharges military personnel diagnosed with hepatitis B.

Moon Chen, director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training.
Moon Chen, director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training.

Moon Chen, Ph.D., director of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training in Sacramento, Calif., is recognized for making hepatitis B a priority for academic and public health research, and for continuing to research and identify effective hepatitis B prevention, screening and referral-to-care intervention models that can be replicated nationwide.

For more information about joining Hep B United, click here.

World Hepatitis Day: Because 4,000 Deaths a Day Is 4,000 Too Many


save-7-million-lives-2-212x300By Christine Kukka

The World Health Organization has designated July 28 as World Hepatitis Day, a day to work for global change to eliminate viral hepatitis and the suffering, death and discrimination that accompanies hepatitis B and C by 2030.

From Asia to North America, on this day people around the world raise awareness about viral hepatitis and advocate for better access to treatment and prevention programs and more effective government action. Why? Because 4,000 deaths a day from viral hepatitis is 4,000 deaths too many.

This action is critical, because for too long global leaders have made hepatitis a low priority. Viral hepatitis is a silent disease that causes no symptoms until it’s too late, and many believed the hepatitis B vaccine would simply make the infection go away.

Instead, global health organizations focused on other diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. HIV especially benefited from unprecedented efforts and donated resources to enable diagnosis and prevention of transmission and to provide treatment at low cost.

Today, we need the same effort and resources to eradicate viral hepatitis, which kill an estimated 1.4 million each year – more people  die from hepatitis annually than from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined.
no-hep-for-all-2-212x300For example, between 5 to 20 percent of the 1 billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa have chronic hepatitis B Despite this prevalence, there are no widespread screening, education or prevention programs in Africa. The majority of people lucky enough to get screened and diagnosed for hepatitis B are often blood donors, because there are no public health clinics that provide screening for viral hepatitis.

In Asia and Africa, even when pregnant women are diagnosed with hepatitis B, their newborns are often not given that critical, first vaccine dose within 12 hours of birth that would break the mother-to-child hepatitis B infection cycle. The birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is either too costly or simply unavailable. Perinatal infection, though preventable, continues to be a major source of chronic infection worldwide. Continue reading "World Hepatitis Day: Because 4,000 Deaths a Day Is 4,000 Too Many"

Join the Conversation at the Hep B United Summit; Watch the Summit On Periscope!

hepbunited-btnThe annual Hep B United Summit, organized by the Hepatitis B Foundation, convenes in Washington D.C. from Wednesday, July 27 through Friday, July 29. National and local coalition partners, experts, stakeholders, and federal partners will meet to discuss how to increase hepatitis B testing and vaccination and improve access to care and treatment for individuals living with hepatitis B.

You can watch many of these important sessions LIVE on Periscope. You can also follow the conversation at the Summit on Twitter with #Hepbunite!

What is Periscope? Periscope broadcasts live video worldwide, in real time, so you can watch it from your computer (via web link) or a mobile device (via Periscope app). The app is free and available for your phone (iPhone and Android) and iPad or Tablet.

Wondering how to use Periscope to watch the Hep B United Summit in real time? There are two options:

  • If you’re using a PC, keep an eye out for a tweet from Hep B United and/or the Hepatitis B Foundation Twitter handles (@hepbunited or @hepbfoundation) that will contain a link to take you directly to the stream.
  • If you’re on the go, you can download the Periscope app for free from the App store or Google Play. You can either login using Twitter or directly with your phone number. Create your Periscope username and then follow hepbunited and hepbfoundation. We’ll be sure to follow you back! Here’s a great Periscope tutorial from Traffic Generation Café to get you started. You can also click on the link from your twitter app.

Here are the details on the sessions that will be broadcast on Periscope:

State of Hepatitis B
1:45-2:15 p.m. Wednesday: Brian McMahon, MD, will provide an update on the state of hepatitis B globally, via a GoToMeeting connection.

Click and watch later here. 

Hep B United and Know Hepatitis B Campaign Accomplishments
2:15-3 p.m. Wednesday:  Cynthia Jorgensen, DrPH, of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis will provide an update on Hep B United and the Know Hepatitis B campaign accomplishments of the past year.

Click and watch here.

HHS Town Hall on Hepatitis B
9:30 a.m. Thursday:  There will be a town hall conference with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), live from HHS.

Click and watch here.

Breakout Session 1:

Developing New Hepatitis B Partnerships and Increasing Awareness
10:45-12:00 p.m. Friday: Contribute and learn about expanding outreach to new sectors (businesses, other at-risk communities, providers, etc.) and hepatitis B education strategies including social and ethnic media engagement. (Facilitators: Thaddeus Pham and Arcadi Kolchak)

Click and watch here.

Leveraging Data and Evaluating Impact
10:45-12:00 p.m. Friday: Discuss and collaborate on hepatitis B data collection and publication strategies, working with IRBs, and leveraging data to evaluate and promote coalition/organization impact. (Facilitators: Moon Chen and Chari Cohen)

Click and watch here.

Breakout Session 2:

Building and Sustaining Local Hepatitis B Coalitions
1:15-2:30 p.m. Friday: Develop strategies to sustain local hepatitis B coalitions and learn about engaging staff and local leadership. (Faciliators: Alex Shirreffs and Mohammad Abdul-Kadir)

Click and watch here.

Navigating Patients and Linkage to Care Strategies
1:15-2:30 p.m. Friday: Contribute to and learn about patient navigation strategies, including overcoming language barriers and working with community health workers and physician champions. (Facilitators: Nirah Johnson and Jane Pan)

Click and watch here.

 Not able to join the sessions with Periscope? Follow the conversation on Twitter using the #Hepbunite hashtag. Follow the events, RT and engage with event attendees and help us raise hepatitis B awareness in the U.S. and around the globe.

World Hepatitis Day is July 28th, and this Summit is a terrific opportunity to share with the world what we’re doing to help those living with hepatitis B in our communities.

Other popular hashtags for World Hepatitis Day, and to raise HBV awareness, include: #NOhep, #KnowHepB, #WorldHepDay, #WHD2016, #hepatitis, #hepatitisB, #HBV, and #hepB

Connect with, follow and engage with some of fellow partners on twitter to keep the HBV conversation going during the HBU Summit and World Hepatitis Day events, and beyond. Check out: @AAPCHOtweets, @AAHC_HOPEclinic, @AAHI_Info, @AAPInews, @apcaaz, @APIAHF, @ASIAOHIO, @CBWCHC, @CCACCInc, @cdchep, @cpacs, @HBIDC, @HepBFoundation, @HepBpolicy, @HepBProject, @HepBUnitedPhila, @HepFreeHawaii, @HHS_ViralHep, @ImmunizeAction, @LaoCenterMN, @MinorityHealth, @njhepb, @nemssf, @NVHR1, @nycHepB, @NYU_CSAAH, @sfhepbfree, @supportichs, @WhiteHouseAAPI,

Missing from the list? Contact the foundation at info@hepb.org to be added.

Don’t forget to join the World Hepatitis Alliance Thunderclap and register your World Hepatitis Day events.

nohep logo

Still have questions? Email us at info@hepb.org and we’ll help you get started!

Visit the Hep B United and Hepatitis B Foundation websites for more information about hepatitis B and related programs.

Closing a Healthcare Gap: Medicare Finally Covers Hepatitis B Testing in At-risk Seniors

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

Medicare insurance pays for seniors to get vaccinated against hepatitis B, but it doesn’t cover testing to find out if they’re infected and need life-saving treatment. The federal government is now poised to close this glaring healthcare gap that prevents at-risk seniors from getting screened for hepatitis B.

Last week, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services proposed to cover hepatitis B testing in seniors age 65 and older who may be at risk of the liver infection.

Currently, the majority of the estimated 2 million Americans with chronic hepatitis B are over age 50, and the longer they are infected, the higher their risk of liver damage and cancer. This preventive screening saves lives and is cost-effective, because treatment with antivirals quickly and effectively reduce liver damage.

Until the Hepatitis B Foundation, Hep B United, the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations and the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable asked the federal government to cover screening,  seniors who wanted to be tested for hepatitis B had to pay for the test themselves. Because hepatitis B is a “silent” infection, causing few symptoms until cirrhosis or cancer develop, nearly two-thirds of Americans living with hepatitis B have never been tested, identified or referred to life-saving treatment.

The highest rate of liver cancer in this country is in Vietnamese-American men, many of whom were never tested for hepatitis B. By the time they are diagnosed, it is often too late. Here’s two more examples of the high cost of this healthcare gap:

  • The Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City serves a large Asian-American population. When the clinic screened all of its patients for hepatitis B, it found 7.8 percent of patients age 65 and older were chronically infected and 45 percent had been infected in the past.
  • Another New York City study of African immigrants, which included all ages, found 9.6 percent of them were chronically infected.

Today, the most vulnerable Americans are infected at a rate 10-times the national average, yet until now the government didn’t cover the cost of screening them. Medicare did cover testing if there were signs of liver damage from other medical tests, but in the case of late-stage hepatitis B infections, a diagnosis often comes too late for treatment.

Screening seniors for hepatitis B has a life-saving ripple effect across generations. When hepatitis B is diagnosed in a grandparent, there is an opportunity to educate, test and vaccinate their children and grandchildren who are also at risk.

Under the new guidelines, which also apply to disabled people covered by Medicare Part B, Medicare will reimburse primary care providers when they screen people at risk of hepatitis B, including:

  • People born in regions with high hepatitis B rates, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and some areas of South and Central America.
  • S.-born residents who were not vaccinated at birth and whose parents come from high-risk regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and central and Southeast Asia
  • HIV-positive persons, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and
  • Family and household members of people with chronic hepatitis B.

This expanded coverage will go far to screen seniors, but gaps remain.

Under the proposed guidelines, only primary care providers can order testing, but many specialists including oncologists, rheumatologists and gastroenterologists see patients at risk for hepatitis B. The expanded coverage should include them and also pharmacists.

Additionally, both providers and the public need to know more about hepatitis B. Today, the majority of people infected with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. Patients often don’t share their true stories of activities that may put them at risk of hepatitis B, especially if it includes sexual abuse or injecting drug use, and doctors often don’t have the time or the skills to elicit this vital information. Along with expanded coverage should come public education to provide a common language for these difficult conversations.

Lastly, while providers are screening more Asian-Americans for hepatitis B, many of those at-risk remain undiagnosed, including first- and second-generation African immigrants.

This expanded Medicare coverage is long over-due, but we have a long way to go.

To read the proposed, expanded coverage for hepatitis B testing,  please click here.

To submit a comment about the proposed coverage, click here .

 

Changing Jobs? How to Find the Best Employer Health Plan When You Have Hepatitis B

getting-a-job-200x300
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Christine Kukka

You’ve just landed a new job with a better paycheck, but how do you make sure your new health plan covers the tests, doctor visits and medications needed for your or a family member’s hepatitis B?

Many people with chronic medical conditions find switching health plans can affect the quality of their medical care and requires a careful calculation of what their out-of-pocket healthcare costs may be in the year ahead.  There’s a lot to consider and doing your homework is essential to finding the best employer insurance plan for your health and your wallet. Two key questions to ask are:

Can I keep the same family doctor and/or liver specialist?  You don’t want to lose the expertise and personal rapport you may have developed with a provider. And, hepatitis B specialists are few and far between in many regions. Find out what doctors and specialists the new plan covers. Some plans offer several options, so find out which one covers your doctor. If the new plan doesn’t include your liver specialist, are you willing to pay extra to stay with him or her? For more information about health insurance terms and shopping for a plan, click here.

How do you make sure the new plan covers your drugs and lab tests? And how do you find this out without disclosing your hepatitis B? First, you cannot be denied coverage — or a job — because of your hepatitis B. The Affordable Care Act prohibits employers from denying anyone coverage because of a pre-existing health condition. However, you need to do your homework and look carefully at the deductibles, copays and coinsurance a plan offers.

When you are offered the job, or when you go for your benefits interview with the HR rep after accepting the job, ask for a copy of their health insurance plan and read it over carefully. It may be available online.  Ideally, you want coverage that covers the most and costs the least after you add up your monthly premiums (the amount you pay each month toward insurance coverage) and the copays (the portion you pay for drugs, lab tests, and doctor visits.)

If you or your family’s medical costs are high, you may find that selecting a plan with a high monthly premium may be the most affordable because your copays for tests and medications will be low.

To find out what costs you can expect (knowing you can’t predict every future medical event), try this exercise. Find out how much you paid during the past year for both premiums and out-of-pocket copays for drugs, lab tests, and doctor visits.

Now look at your new plan’s options. Assuming you have the same prescriptions, lab tests and doctor visits, how much would you pay under the new plan? If you have a choice of plans, apply the same test to each. Which plan is the least expensive when both copays and premiums are added up?

Look at a plan’s prescription pricing carefully. While health plans can’t openly refuse to insure people with costly, pre-existing conditions, some inflate the amount you pay for the two leading hepatitis B antiviral drugs (Viread and generic entecavir) to deliberately discourage people with chronic hepatitis B from choosing their health plans.

Every insurance plan has a drug formula overview in its description, which you have access to. It assigns a price “tier” to each drug. A low-cost generic antibiotic may be a Tier 1 and cost you only a $5 copay while a new, brand-name drug is assigned a pricier Tier 4 or 5 ranking and could be extremely expensive.

Look up any medications you are currently taking, or may take in the near future. For example, if your doctor has warned you that an antiviral may be in your future if your liver enzyme tests continue to rise, you will want to review your plan’s pricing for entecavir or tenofovir. If the health plan charges a high monthly copay for a generic antiviral such as entecavir, you may be able to file a complaint. Email the Hepatitis B Foundation at info@hepb.org for more information.

Reviewing health insurance coverage details isn’t easy, but it’s important to make sure your new health plan will be the best for you and your family.

What do you do if there is a one- or two-month lag before your new coverage begins? When you leave a job, you may be able to keep your old job’s health insurance coverage for several months. This is called COBRA continuation coverage. Under COBRA, you usually have to pay the entire monthly premium yourself, plus a small administrative fee. This may be costly, but if it provides good coverage and if you’re due for your annual physical, lab tests and ultrasound, or if you need to continue antivirals, it may be a good option.

Another option is the Health Insurance Marketplace . Also known as “Obamacare,” this helps uninsured people find and apply for quality, affordable health coverage, and low and middle-income people may qualify for lower costs based on their household size and income. Losing your health insurance because you’re changing jobs may qualify as a “life changing event” that allows you to apply. For more information on marketplace health plans and hepatitis B, please click here.

Another option is short-term or temporary health insurance coverage. For more information click here.

Celebrate Democracy July 4, Because Building Walls Never Stops Disease

statue-of-liberty-2-300x200
Image courtesy of porbital, at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

By Christine Kukka

As the United States celebrates its inclusive, democratic heritage this July 4, the world appears to be pulling apart and disregarding the health and welfare of tens of thousands of refugees.

Civil unrest, extremism and poverty are causing thousands to flee the Middle East, Africa and other regions daily. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, some countries and politicians are advocating building walls instead of bridges.

Britain has just voted to leave the European Union. Proponents of “Brexit” shifted the debate away from the economic impact of leaving the E.U. and onto immigration and issues of nationalism. They used the tried-and-true tactic of fear-mongering and blaming outsiders and newcomers for slow economic growth to lure voters to sever their close ties with Europe.

Building walls and ignoring the plight of refugees has terrible human and political consequences. For example, civil unrest helps speed the spread of diseases like hepatitis B around the world. According to estimates,  every year up to 16 million hepatitis B infections (along with 160,000 HIV and 4.7 million hepatitis C infections) result from unsafe injections, many of which are administered in refugee settlements and war zones. In addition to unsafe injections, children don’t get vaccinated against hepatitis B, contributing to the spread of liver disease.

“Developing world conflict and maldistribution of resources remain major contributors to the prevalence of blood-borne viral infection and affect the poor, the young, and the victims of rape in war,” Australian researchers wrote in an article on the impact of war and civil unrest on public health in the journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, with 34,000 displaced daily. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees — half of whom are children. About 54 percent of today’s refugees come from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. All risk infection as they are trafficked or smuggled or transition through refugee camps. We at the foundation have received several emails from desperate refugees diagnosed with hepatitis B in refugee camps with no access to medical care.

When my grandparents came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, it was during a period when there were no walls or fear. Like today’s refugees, they left poverty behind and traveled to a land that promised equal opportunity for all. America was a shining beacon of acceptance and inclusiveness.

As a country, we lose our integrity and our right to say we are among the best in the world if we build walls and forget that we are a country of immigrants. Do you want to promote democracy around the world? Listen to the suffering of others, recognize it, and do your best to bolster the health and welfare of all people of the world. Blind nationalism only make us more isolated. No one wins and many more will die from infections that we can easily prevent.

In Rural Villages Across India, an Everyday Hero Works to Eradicate Hepatitis B

Villagers-attend-an-education-class-to-learn-how-to-prevent-hepatitis-B.-300x169
Villagers in India attend an education class to learn how to prevent hepatitis B.

By Christine Kukka

India has one of the highest hepatitis B infection rates in the world. An estimated 40 percent of all hepatitis B deaths worldwide occur in India each year, and about 3 percent of its 1.25 billion residents – about 40 million — are chronically infected.

This liver disease wrecks medical and emotional havoc in India. People diagnosed with hepatitis B struggle to attend schools, advance professionally, and even marry due to the ignorance and stigma surrounding this infection.

Like many countries, India’s government is struggling to find resources to screen, immunize, and treat the millions of people affected by hepatitis B. But some people, including Surender Kumar and Sandeep Godara of New Delhi, are not waiting for the government to eradicate hepatitis B.

The two men have created a nonprofit organization called Rann India Foundation and enlisted support from various organizations and pharmaceutical companies to raise awareness about hepatitis B in some of the poorest slums and rural regions of India. Increasingly, advocates like Kumar and their grassroots army of volunteers and staff are needed to combat hepatitis B globally.Government initiatives to screen people for hepatitis B, immunize those at risk, and infected people into treatment have been woefully under-funded. Public health campaigns need resources, vaccines, and the ability to screen people—especially pregnant women to make sure their newborns are immediately immunized at birth–to prevent a new generation of hepatitis B infections.

These campaigns need medical supplies and staff, but they also require knowledge about hepatitis B, compassion and an understanding of local customs to be effective. “I found out in 2010 that I was infected,” Kumar, a 34-year-old human resources executive, explained.

His brother had tried to donate blood at work and was told he was infected. He told his family about the results and encouraged them to be tested. Kumar and his mother discovered they too were infected. “On that same day, I decided to raise awareness about this silent killer in rural as well as urban areas,” he said.

“There is little awareness among people about this disease in rural areas of India as individuals often do not feel sick for many years,” Kumar explained. “I knew we needed a mass awareness program to teach people how to prevent this.”

 

Surender-presentation-300x200
Surender Kumar of the Rann India Foundation teaches villagers about hepatitis B prevention in India.

Their campaign provides education, screening and immunization to people during village meetings, special events and cultural programs in 120 villages. “This helps us create a database of all the people in the area, we divide the screened people into two groups, one group that tests positive for hepatitis B and other with a negative result,” he said.

They sponsor immunization campaigns in collaboration with government programs and use donations from pharmaceutical companies for all who test negative for the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which indicates they are not currently infected. They refer infected people to the local government hospital for treatment and monitoring. As part of the campaign, the initiative trains local peer educators who continue to raise awareness about hepatitis B after Kumar’s initial education campaign.

The need for this work is critical in India, and at first glance this appears to be an impossible task given the lack of awareness about how hepatitis B is spread and prevented and the enormity of the need. Despite the insurmountable odds, Kumar is intent on working to “defeat” hepatitis B in his country.

Instead of waiting for change, Kumar and Godara are hepatitis B heroes working to save lives and raise awareness. You can contact him by email at:surendersharma19817@gmail.com

 For another look at how people in India are fighting stigma and discrimination against people with hepatitis B, view Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan’s video here.

Celebrate Fathers Day By Protecting Your Health and Your Families’ — Get Tested for Hepatitis B

Poster-GetTested_SuperDad-2-235x300
Courtesy of the US CDC

By Christine Kukka

After our daughter was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B 20 years ago, my doctor immediately had me tested for hepatitis B before I could leave her office. She explained that every household member, including my husband, had to be tested for the liver infection that’s transmitted by direct contact with blood and body fluids. ASAP.

The good news was my daughter, who was adopted, appeared healthy and showed no signs of liver damage. The bad news was my husband and I were shaken to the core by her diagnosis. Weighed down by worry and ignorance, I feared we might all be infected and were facing a death sentence.

I drove out to my husband’s work and we went for a walk. I explained what the doctor had said and explained he had to get tested. It was one of those moments when fear and denial play out over the course of a conversation. Like everyone, he was afraid to get tested. He felt fine, at first he didn’t want to know whether he was infected. For a few moments, he thought ignorance might be less painful than finding out he had hepatitis B.And, as in most families, this disclosure wasn’t easy. He had children from his first marriage who were with us every weekend and they had to be tested too. He would have to share this information with his former wife. This disclosure was going to upend two households. After a few minutes of waffling and processing, he did what courageous fathers do. He got tested and made sure his children were tested too.

The news was all good. His children had been immunized and were fine, he was not infected and was immediately immunized. Today, we are all doing fine, including our daughter.

Every father’s day, I think about that moment, when my husband refused to  retreat into denial, when he put his family’s health ahead of his initial impulse to hide from a frightening and messy situation. It is what being a good father is all about, and it takes courage.

A growing number of studies show fathers are critical to the emotional well-being of their children. When they are affectionate, supportive, and involved, they bolster a child’s emotional development, as well as academic achievement.

A child’s relationship with his/her father affects all of their future relationships and helps define what the child considers to be acceptable and loving. When involved with their children, fathers make a difference. No matter if he is married, single, divorced, widowed, gay, straight, adoptive, step-father, a stay-at-home dad, or the primary family provider,  one of the most profound things he can do is protect the health of his family—and himself–by getting tested for hepatitis B.

There are many men who are at risk of hepatitis B because of where they or their parents or grandparents emigrated from, or if they served in the military, dabbled in drugs, or had multiple sex partners. That was in the past, and this is today, a time to protect your health and your family by getting tested for hepatitis B.

The CDC offers short video clips that feature a conversation between a daughter and her parents, with the daughter explaining why Asian-Americans should be tested for hepatitis B in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean. A high percentage of Asian and African immigrants have hepatitis B, but most don’t know they are infected. To view these clips, visit: http://www.cdc.gov/knowhepatitisb/materials.htm