Hep B Blog

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Advocate Nadine Shiroma Champions Civil Rights for All Affected by Hepatitis B

Nadine Shiroma and her grandchild.
Nadine Shiroma and her grandchild.

By Nadine Shiroma

I am a retiree and volunteer working to address hepatitis B discrimination, which involves a serious, relatively unknown chronic disease that impacts Asian-American and Pacific Islander American (AAPIA) immigrants and refugees who are often isolated by culture and language, which makes this discrimination especially egregious.

As a fifth-generation AAPIA, I’d heard of hepatitis B but was not aware that it leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer or that AAPIAs make up 50 percent of the country’s estimated 2 million hepatitis B cases, but represent less than 5 percent of the U.S. population.

These facts came into sharp focus in 2010, when a college senior was devastated to learn she would not be permitted to enroll in a healthcare program due to her chronic hepatitis B. Nothing in the school’s admissions policy or information published by the profession’s national admissions coordinating agency had prepared the student for this. When the student informed me that an older friend with hepatitis B was completing a similar healthcare program at a different institution, I advised her to challenge her school’s exclusion policy.

The issue raised many questions that called for research and consultation with hepatitis B specialists and community health and civil rights advocates to find out how and why schools were permitted to have such different hepatitis B policies. I also sought to compare various institutional policies with their respective state licensing laws for providers with hepatitis B. Fortunately, I was referred to an attorney who had an understanding of the disease who challenged the school’s exclusion policy. This led to the school’s implementation of a new, progressive policy for students with chronic hepatitis B.

Though gratified with the outcome for this student, I feared other students with hepatitis B would face similar discrimination, because too many medical school policies barring enrollment of students with hepatitis B were undisclosed. Future victims might not know how or where to access assistance or legal help. Given the World Health Organization’s map of global regions with high rates of hepatitis B and the current patterns of U.S. immigration, I believed hepatitis B discrimination would soon impact other immigrant/refugee communities.

My initial contact with the Hepatitis B Foundation in 2010 developed into a working relationship that won justice for five additional medical and dental students who contacted us between 2011 and 2013.

At the urging of the foundation and hepatitis B specialists,  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised and updated its 20-year old policy for infected healthcare workers; and the disability complaint I filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) resulted in a Settlement Agreement for two students and a Technical Assistance Letter jointly issued by three federal agencies to inform healthcare schools of their responsibilities to accommodate individuals with hepatitis B and point out that failure to comply could also violate Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Hepatitis B civil rights advocacy is now focused on policies of all U.S. military services, including the Coast Guard, Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which ban individuals with hepatitis B from joining.

Between 2013 and 2016, we advised nine active duty personnel and students who were not permitted to enlist for military service or scholarship programs or were discharged from active duty or a U.S. military academy due to hepatitis B. We continue to advocate for the Department of Defense to revise the policies that prohibit the people with chronic hepatitis B and establish reasonable, science-based accommodation policies for existing or future personnel who are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B

Continuing hepatitis B education and civil rights challenges

Most immigrants and refugees do not understand the seriousness of the silent disease or the importance of hepatitis B screening. If diagnosed with hepatitis B, they often fear being treated as ‘pariahs’ in a society where they already feel like outsiders; or they worry that others in their family will be stigmatized or that hepatitis B will be used as an excuse to prevent immigrants from entering the U.S. Still others may be silenced by a code of silence within their professions.

Adding complexity to hepatitis B education and outreach are the diverse languages and cultures of the immigrant/refugee communities, along with the economic and social disparities experienced by so many families who start new lives in the U.S. living in relative isolation with limited English proficiency and few financial resources.

Lest we think hepatitis B discrimination is limited to Asian- and African-American and immigrant/refugee communities, new pockets of hepatitis B infection linked to the opioid epidemic have been reported in rural regions. Outbreaks of hepatitis B infection in majority white, non-immigrant, economically-depressed regions suggest that some of those infected may not have been immunized due to a lack of knowledge or healthcare access. These are social and economic disparities that mirror the disparities experienced by many immigrant/refugee families.

Like their healthier peers, teens and young adults with hepatitis B seek opportunities to fulfill their potential, earn a living wage and improve their lives. To this end, hepatitis B advocates are working to protect the rights of infected persons and ensure that our schools and institutions, and public and private employers administer reasonable, science-based chronic hepatitis B policies and accommodations.

Nadine Shiroma is a community civil and voting rights advocate and policy advisor to the Hepatitis B Foundation. She can be contacted at nadine.shiroma@gmail.com.

Diagnosed in March, 2009, with stage 4 metastatic non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Nadine spent the remainder of the year undergoing chemotherapy and recurrent hospitalizations. “That I lived and recovered is due to doctors at the City of Hope Cancer Research Center, my family and especially my husband and daughter,” she recalled. “Assisting the college senior in 2010 helped me discover a new normalcy. On that day in 2011, when a new, progressive chronic hepatitis B accommodation policy was published by the healthcare school that previously excluded students with hepatitis B, I told myself, ‘This is why I lived.’”


July 4th: Celebrating Freedom from Discrimination Against Hepatitis B

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

The day my daughter started kindergarten, her teacher asked that she be transferred to another classroom. She thought my daughter posed a health threat to a classmate who was recovering from leukemia.

Our doctor had disclosed my daughter’s chronic hepatitis B infection on her school health form. I thought the school nurse would know my daughter posed no risk to students, who were nearly all immunized against hepatitis B and supervised by teachers trained in universal precautions.

I was wrong on many counts. The school nurse went along with the teacher’s recommendation. After heated discussions with the school principal that included providing copies of medical reports and civil rights laws, my daughter remained in the classroom and the school’s staff received training on universal precautions.

That happened 16 years ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been enacted 10 years earlier and policy makers, health officials and the courts were still working out exactly how the landmark law would protect people with blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

Continue reading "July 4th: Celebrating Freedom from Discrimination Against Hepatitis B"

Know Your Rights: What College Students with Hep B Need to Know About Health Forms and Disclosure

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

This summer, students living with hepatitis B face a task that can be as stressful as SATs, entrance exams or writing college essays – completing their colleges’ health forms.

Some colleges and graduate schools require no medical information while others expect you to document in detail your allergies, immunizations, medical history and even undergo TB testing.

The good news is colleges want to make sure all students are vaccinated against hepatitis B, the bad news is the requirement can force students to disclose their hepatitis B infection. Here are some important things parents and students should know when filling out college health forms.

No school can deny you admission or treat you differently because you have hepatitis B. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disabilities, and that includes hepatitis B.

Continue reading "Know Your Rights: What College Students with Hep B Need to Know About Health Forms and Disclosure"

U.S. Residents Only: Reporting Discriminatory Behavior Due to Chronic HBV Infection

Unknown-1An important message from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which pertains only to U.S. Residents:

If you or someone you know is dismissed or barred from a program due to chronic hepatitis B infection, report the incident to the Department of Justice, whether the complaint is against a State or local agency, a school or any private entity that serves the public.

As a friend, advocate or colleague, you have the right to file a complaint to report discriminatory behavior.  Fill in and submit the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Complaint Form (www.ada.gov/t2cmpfrm.htm).

Kindly return the form to the following address:
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Disability Rights – NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

Or you may print and send the report via fax to the following number: (202) 307-1197.

Please note: you must be a U.S. resident in order to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice

Justice Department Settles with the UMDNJ Over Discrimination Against People with Hepatitis B

Direct from the Department of Justice (see below), the first DOJ settlement of an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) case involving people with hepatitis B was announced.  The Hepatitis B Foundation is proud to have played a critical role in successfully advocating for these students who suffered from discrimination as a result of chronic hepatitis B infection.

You may recall an earlier story posted both in the HBF Spring Newsletter, 2012 and the HBF’s Hep B Blog, “Dreams on Hold – A personal story of an aspiring medical student .“ This was one of four cases that spurred the HBF into action on behalf of these students and their rights.

July 2011, a meeting was convened by the CDC, with the HBF and others, resulting in the July 2012 CDC update “Recommendations for the Management of Hepatitis B virus-Infected Health Care Providers and Students. ”These recommendations were cited in the DOJ statement and clearly contributed to the DOJ settlement on behalf of people living with chronic HBV eliminating them from being excluded or discriminated against due to health issues. Since all applicants are from the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, which accounts for more than 50% of Americans living with chronic HBV, The DOJ assures that the Civil Rights Division is committed to ensuring discrimination does not occur in this community as a result of this disability.  On behalf of those living with HBV, the HBF applauds this decision by the DOJ. 

The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School (UMDNJ) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).   The settlement resolves complaints that the UMDNJ School of Medicine and the UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine unlawfully excluded applicants because they have hepatitis B.   This is the first ADA settlement ever reached by the Justice Department on behalf of people with hepatitis B.In 2011, the two applicants in this matter applied and were accepted to the UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine, and one of them was also accepted to the UMDNJ School of Medicine. The schools later revoked the acceptances when the schools learned that the applicants have hepatitis B.   The Justice Department determined that the schools had no lawful basis for excluding the applicants, especially because students at the schools are not even required to perform invasive surgical procedures, and that the exclusion of the applicants contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated guidance on this issue.

According to the CDC’s July 2012 “Updated Recommendations for Preventing Transmission and Medical Management of Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) – Infected Health Care Workers and Students,” no transmission of Hepatitis B has been reported in the United States from primary care providers, clinicians, medical or dental students, residents, nurses, or other health care providers to patients since 1991.

“Excluding people with disabilities from higher education based on unfounded fears or incorrect scientific information is unacceptable,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.   “We applaud the UMDNJ for working cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these matters in a fair manner.”

“It is especially important that a public institution of higher learning – especially one with a mission to prepare future generations of medical professionals – strictly follow the laws Congress has enacted to protect from discrimination those people who have health issues,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Paul Fishman. “The remedies to which the school has agreed should ensure this does not happen again.”

Under the settlement agreement, the UMDNJ must adopt a disability rights policy that is based on the CDC’s Hepatitis B recommendations, permit the applicants to enroll in the schools, provide ADA training to their employees and provide the applicants a total of $75,000 in compensation and tuition credits.

Both of the applicants in this matter come from the Asian American Pacific Islander community. The CDC reports that Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) make up less than 5 percent of the total population in the United States, but account for more than 50 percent of Americans living with chronic Hepatitis B.   Nearly 70 percent of AAPIs living in the United States were born, or have parents who were born, in countries where hepatitis B is common. Most AAPIs with Hepatitis B contracted Hepatitis B during childbirth .   The Civil Rights Division is committed to ensuring that this community is not subjected to discrimination because of disability.

Title II of the ADA prohibits state and local government entities, like the UMDNJ, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in programs, services, and activities. State and local governments must also make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless those modifications would result in a fundamental alteration.

More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at the website www.justice.gov/crt.  More information about the ADA and today’s agreement with UMDNJ can be accessed at the ADA website at www.ada.gov or by calling the toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TTY).