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Patient Perspective: Living with Chronic Hepatitis B & Fighting it On All Fronts

 

This post is by guest blogger Mariam. Mariam works at a charity cancer hospital and is interested in philosophy. She is currently learning french and enjoys spending time by herself and the mountains. 

When you are first told that you have a chronic disease that is treatable but has no cure, you are suddenly confronted with an enemy on multiple fronts—you have to fight it within your body, inside your mind, your heart and in the outside world. Chronic hepatitis B: nearly 15 million people are living with it in Pakistan. In the world, 292 million people are silently suffering from this , and most are unaware (which is 9 out of 10 people globally). It is a tragedy that 2 out of 3 liver-related deaths are caused by this infection which is preventable and treatable. There are many reasons why this disease is prevalent in a developing country like Pakistan that lacks a proper healthcare system; where there are no pregnancy screenings or an effective mechanism to ensure babies are vaccinated against this. It’s an infection that can be transferred through blood (most commonly from an infected mother to her baby during delivery)  and sexual intercourse and  so it is not difficult to understand how this disease travels from one generation to another, silently. Elimination of viral hepatitis by 2030 is one of the millennium goals of the World Health Organization, but we cannot achieve this without dedicated efforts by all the stakeholders that include health-care professionals, patients, media, and policy-makers. I am primarily interested in sharing the patient’s perspective, in hopes that it will encourage others to fight this epidemic.

A Patient’s Point of View

The fact it’s a chronic illness means you are in for the long haul and you have to be prepared to take care of yourself by regular monitoring/medications (depending on what stage you are at) for the rest of your life. One can argue that’s bad but it’s not a big deal as we have people who suffer from high blood pressure, bad eyesight, or diabetes and they also have to regularly take care of themselves. The problem is that hepatitis B is an infectious disease, a fact that contributes towards stigma surrounding its diagnosis. Suffering from flu makes me feel like a hazard to others. Having an infection that I cannot get rid-off certainly makes me feel bad and, in a way, dirty. I have to be cautious and aware that my blood is hazardous for others and I have to be constantly aware of all the possibilities I can be harmful and ways to prevent it. It’s a progressive disease which can be treated at a certain point, so when you go to follow-up appointments, you feel like a ticking bomb is inside you and you need to be able to identify the period when the bomb goes off so you can treat the damage. Because current hepatitis B medications are most effective when there are signs of liver damage, the treatment is often only given during this phase. The inherent uncertainty makes you hate hepatitis B.

Fighting Discrimination and Stigma

Living in a conservative society, if you are one of the few fortunate ones aware of your diagnosis, how do you deal with it? I kept it to myself because I did not want people to define me through my illness. I did not tell my parents or friends because I did not want them to see me as ill or worse, to pity me. I needed time to process it without having to deal with other’s opinions and judgments. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with hepatitis B during regular pre-employment screening. I did not even know anything about this disease. I had a biopsy to determine the stage of the disease. Then I went to a few follow-ups. Unfortunately, after a while, I stopped because I did not want to think about this illness. I wanted to forget about it so I tucked it away, in the farthest corner of my mind. I did not know many people with whom I felt safe talking about this. Until one day, I was at a fundraising event for a charity cancer hospital where I got the chance to sit with a doctor. He was a stranger and a doctor, so in a way I felt safe telling him why I’m so interested in trying to understand where my country stands in the fight against hepatitis B—I told him I was diagnosed with it. At one point he asked me if I’m on treatment,  and I honestly told him I am supposed to be on follow-up. He said, “What do you mean, supposed to be?” That slight hint of disappointment made me feel I failed in taking care of myself. It’s easier to sound irrational inside your head but when you share it out loud, it does not feel nice. He told me that first, I need to sort out myself before trying to make a difference in the world of hepatitis B. I am grateful for the brief discussion with him which gave me the courage to think about re-scheduling my long overdue follow-up appointment. It gave me the clarity that I wanted to share my story with others in hopes that those who are fighting hepatitis know they are not alone. Sharing my story also helps me feel that I am not alone either.

I feel it is very important to fight the stigma surrounding hepatitis. Only then we will be able to talk about it and bust the myths. Only then we will be able to discuss ways to fight it on the ground. It is common in a conservative society to put a label on you as defective and exclude you from everything. For instance, marriage is still, by large, the union in this culture after which people have sexual intercourse and have kids; both occasions that can be possible causes of transmission of this virus. If, before marriage, a person is aware of their diagnosis, they can ensure that their partner is vaccinated and safe. However, in this society, there is also a prevalent culture of arranged marriage which makes this whole discussion almost impossible because so-called “perfection” is demanded. I wonder if submitting your hepatitis status with a marriage certificate was compulsory, would it help in data collection and early detection of this disease or would it encourage stereotyping. What if it was possible to vaccinate every child who starts school to be vaccinated against hepatitis B? After all, mandatory vaccinations are common in other countries. But what about children who can’t afford to go to a school? Can we link hepatitis B vaccination confirmation mandatory with every birth certification? This works in many other countries that vaccinate every baby born – we need to able to fight hepatitis B with a strong response such as this.

I also have an obsession with trying to understand this virus that is sharing my body. So my brain imagined a story to help understand how the chronic hepatitis B works. There are the good guys (liver cells) and bad guys (virus) who grew up together quite happily. Until one day, the good guys realized that these other guys are not from amongst us, let’s kill them. There is a battle and then there is collateral damage. What I want to understand is, if the bad guys aren’t harming the good guys, then why does the body start fighting them? And what is the purpose of their existence if they are not bad guys by default? Perhaps one day someone will help answer my questions. Until then, I’ll try to focus on the inevitable fight.

 

Join Us for a Twitter Interview! Meet Our Storytellers and Learn Their Hepatitis B Stories

#justB-Twittervu-blogThe Hepatitis B Foundation is proud to launch its storytelling campaign, sharing the stories of people living with and affected by hepatitis B. Join the Twitter interview at 2 p.m. (EST), Tuesday, May 16, hosted by the Hepatitis B Foundation and StoryCenter.

We will introduce three of our storytellers and their stories. Join the Twitter interview with the hashtag #justB and hear the poignant stories of real people living with hep B.

We will be introducing Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. Jason, was in a difficult place in his life with addiction and depression when he learned of his hepatitis B and sought treatment. Bunmi, originally from Nigeria, talks about the loss of her father to hepatitis B- related liver cancer and the unwillingness of her family to talk about his disease. Maureen’s hepatitis B journey began with the adoption of her daughter, and the struggle with disclosure with family and friends. These brave storytellers are ready to put an end to the silence surrounding hepatitis B.

Below are the topics scheduled for discussion during the Twitter interview. How can you contribute to the conversation? Please support Jason, Bunmi and Maureen K. as they disclose their hepatitis B stories on social media. Consider sharing parts of your hep B story or pose a question. Join the conversation with the hashtag #justB.

T1. Tell us about hepatitis B, the storytelling campaign and what the foundation hopes to achieve for those affected by hepatitis B.
T2. What makes hepatitis B different from other diseases, and how do these stories highlight the challenges associated with hepatitis B?
T3. We’d like to open it up to our storytellers. Please tell us about your story, and what makes hepatitis B different from other diseases.
T4. How has hepatitis B affected your life?
T5. What made you decide to share your hepatitis B story? Were you concerned with the stigma associated with hepatitis B?
T6. Describe your experience meeting with others impacted by hepatitis B.
T7. If there is one message you would like to get across to others about coping with #hepatitis B, what would it be?
T8: What would you tell others that are struggling with whether or not they should share their hepatitis B story?

Co-hosts and special guest handles include:

Be sure to watch Jason, Bunmi and MaureenK‘s stories.

Are you just getting started with Twitter and want to know how to join the conversation?  Type #justB in the search box of the Twitter application and click on the “latest option” to follow the twitter view.

#justB in search box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can prepare any questions or tweets you might have for the above participants in advance, or you can also tweet on the fly, re-tweet, or Like a tweet from the chat.

The topics are labeled T1, T2, etc. so please respond/answer specific topic by using A1, A2, etc. in front of your tweets. Remember to include the #justB hashtag, which is not case sensitive, in all of your tweets.

Looking forward to sharing the stories of our guests on the Twitter view. Please welcome them by joining the conversation!

People Affected by Hepatitis B Share Stories of Family Secrets, Stigma and Diagnoses That Came Too Late

Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.
Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, describes how doctors failed to test his family for hepatitis B in his video story.

In an innovative storytelling initiative, people living with chronic hepatitis B open their hearts and share their stories of family secrets, stigma and diagnoses that came too late as they confront the impact of hepatitis B on themselves and the people they love.

The Hepatitis B Foundation, working with StoryCenter, has created unique video stories that share the experiences of people affected by hepatitis B, which affects one-third of the world’s population. The video stories, which debut May 1 in recognition of Hepatitis Awareness Month, are designed to raise awareness about the liver disease that affects 2 million in the U.S.

There is no better way to understand the human toll hepatitis B takes than to hear directly from those affected. Most people know very little about this disease and up to 75 percent of people living with hepatitis B don’t know they’re infected. The hope is that these stories will put a human face on this infection and help improve testing, vaccination and treatment.

One storytelling video, featuring former ABC 7 News anchor Alan Wang of Berkeley, CA, talks about how doctors fail to test people for hepatitis B. It was after the CEO of Newsworthy Media suffered liver damage that a doctor tested him for hepatitis B. “It was only because I (had) a medical reporter friend who connected me to a leading hepatologist that I got the attention I needed,” Wang, 49, explains in his story. After his diagnosis, he encouraged family members to be tested and his mother and siblings were also found to be infected by the disease that is easily transmitted at birth.

justB“We were left to connect the dots because the medical profession is failing to address an epidemic that kills more than 700,000 people a year,” he explained. “It’s bad enough that hepatitis B is a silent killer with few symptoms until it’s too late. It’s also ignored by Asian cultures that consider talk about deadly diseases to be taboo.”

While a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B has been available since 1982, many Americans did not have access to the vaccine. John Ellis Jr., another hepatitis B storyteller who lives in Pensacola, FL, was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B at age 16. He, like many people living with hepatitis B, does not know how he became infected.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked the doctor couldn’t tell me how I contracted it, as if finding out how I contracted hepatitis B would somehow cure me of it. As I grow older, what’s most important to me is maintaining my health.” Ellis explains in his story that he wants to be, “bigger than his diagnosis.” He does not want hepatitis to hold him back or define him. He is an entrepreneur and he has organized a charity bike ride to raise awareness and funding for research.

Another featured storyteller is pharmacist Bunmi Daramaja, of Elkridge, MD, who grew up in Nigeria and emigrated to the U.S. She struggled with her family’s reluctance to discuss her father’s death from liver cancer, resulting from chronic hepatitis B.

“Stigma is everywhere (in my African culture),” she explained in her story. “People don’t think about the facts of how the virus is transmitted– they are afraid to even touch someone who has it. Many people don’t even want to get tested, because treatment is either not available or costs too much money. They say, ‘What’s the point?’ This needs to change.

“In the U.S., the services are here, and I want to make sure that people of African origin know there are resources. I want to end this silence,” she explained.

The Hepatitis B Foundation’s Storytelling page helps tell the story about an infection in the U.S. that is under-diagnosed, under-treated and remains stigmatized across America.

Like Hepatitis B, Addiction Is a Chronic Disease That Needs Treatment Without Judgement

addictionBy Christine Kukka

Addiction is a chronic disease, like hepatitis B, type II diabetes, cancer and heart disease. These diseases all run in families, are influenced by environment and behavior, and are notoriously difficult to treat.

No one chooses to develop diabetes or heart disease. Nor do they choose to be a drug addict or alcoholic, or infected with hepatitis B. Yet, how we view and treat people with these chronic diseases varies drastically.

As a society, we view heart disease as a tragic occurrence. It kills roughly the same number of people as cancer, lower respiratory diseases and accidents combined and costs us more than $316.6 billion in health care and lost productivity.

But most heart disease is preventable and results from an inability to make wise choices about food and exercise. Yet, when we hear about a heart attack, we don’t shake our heads and say, “If only they had exercised more,” or, “too bad they didn’t have enough self-control to lay off the junk food.”

alcoholicBut we do say that about smoking, drug addiction and alcoholism, and about some of the chronic infectious diseases that result, such as hepatitis B or C or HIV.

How often do we who have hepatitis B quickly tell our friends that we were infected at birth, to make sure they know it wasn’t from drugs or promiscuity? Even we who live with hepatitis B can get caught up in the notion that some hepatitis B cases carry shame and others do not.

If we can get past our moral judgements about addiction and view it instead as the chronic disease it is, maybe we can also stop moralizing and judging people with STIs or viral hepatitis or HIV. Maybe we can finally get better at talking about it, preventing it and treating it.

There is overlap between “respectable” chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease and stigmatized diseases like addiction to tobacco, alcohol or street drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Tobacco contributes to 11 to 30 percent of cancer deaths and 30 percent of heart disease deaths each year.
  • Tobacco, cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol and steroids all contribute to heart disease.
  • Injecting drug use contributes to one-third of HIV/AIDS cases and most hepatitis C cases, and is now responsible for an increase in new hepatitis B infections in many rural states, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

We need to re-orient our views of addiction if we are ever to treat it scientifically. Everyone with a chronic disease deserves treatment, quality care and respect.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 people are infected with hepatitis B in the U.S. each year, 20 percent are injecting drug users.  More than 80 percent of drug users who have been injecting for a decade or longer have been infected with hepatitis B.

We need effective treatment for all addictions, no matter if the drug of choice is tobacco, alcohol, heroin, fast food, sweets, or an opioid prescribed by a doctor.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, let’s take a moment to recognize our own prejudices and discard them for the sake of all touched by the chronic disease of addiction.

March 1 is Zero Discrimination Day: Ending Hepatitis B Stigma Starts with Us

 

2017-zero-discrimination-day_en.pdfBy Christine Kukka

Around the world, millions of people with chronic hepatitis B face wrenching discrimination that limits their dreams, education, careers, income and personal relationships. Here are examples:

  • A Vietnamese woman working in a hotel in Dubai is found to have hepatitis B and is fired, isolated, deported and given a life-time ban on re-entering the country.
  • A young person from the Philippines, aspiring to increase her income to support her impoverished family, is hired to work in Saipan, but her work visa is suddenly cancelled by the employment agency when it discovers she has hepatitis B.
  • A young man from the state of Washington, who worked hard in high school to get into the Naval Academy, is summarily dismissed within days of his arrival when it’s discovered he has hepatitis B. The U.S. military continues to bar people with hepatitis B from serving.

All of this discrimination is unethical, unnecessary and a violation of human rights. Hepatitis B is simply not transmitted through casual contact. The stigma that persists is based on ignorance and it impacts millions around the world daily. This is why we need to recognize Zero Discrimination Day on Wednesday, March 1.

Image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of cooldesign at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

This day, designated by the United Nations, highlights the negative impact of discrimination and promotes tolerance, compassion and peace. Many hepatitis activist organizations, including the Hepatitis B Foundation, is using this celebration to draw attention to global hepatitis B discrimination.

In the U.S., some progress has been made to eradicate the unequal treatment of people affected by chronic hepatitis B infection. In 2012, prompted in part by complaints filed by the foundation, CDC issued new regulations that clarified that hepatitis B should not, “disqualify infected persons from the practice or study of surgery, dentistry, medicine, or allied health fields.” These recommendations and a U.S. Department of Justice letter warned medical, nursing, dental schools that they could not exclude applicants and students with hepatitis B, concluding, “… for most chronically HBV-infected providers and students who conform to current standards for infection control, HBV infection status alone does not require any curtailing of their practices or supervised learning experiences.”

However, today people with hepatitis B can’t even get jobs as hotel maids in many countries in the Middle East and Asia. Fear and ignorance, and reluctance by government officials to outlaw these discriminatory practices, have allowed these rules that diminish basic human rights to continue. The young woman who was exiled from Dubai, wrote of her experience:

“When I was 21, I had my internship in Dubai and needed to undergo a blood test. I was not aware of the rules in that country so when I was tested positive, the hotel that I worked for isolated me. I was going through a very hard time because I was completely alone in a foreign country. My work visa was canceled, they brought me to a place that looked like a jail, they took my iris scan, and I was deported along with a lifetime ban, which means I can never come back to that country again. That was the most horrible memory in my life. I am still scared every time I think about it. Sometimes I cannot sleep at night, I keep blaming, cursing myself for having this kind of virus inside my body.”

Image courtesy of meepoohfoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net,
Image courtesy of meepoohfoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net,

No one is to blame for hepatitis B, including the millions who were infected at birth or from unsafe and contaminated syringes and medical devices. There is a safe and effective vaccine that prevents hepatitis B today. When people are protected, there is no reason to fear that healthcare workers or hotel maids will spread this infection.

It is morally reprehensible that given the tools and knowledge we have that this discrimination should continue today.

Every day is zero discrimination day, and ending discrimination starts with us working individually in any way we can in our communities to end this stigma.

Make the NOhep:NOexcuse pledge and take simple actions to help eliminate viral hepatitis. It only takes a minute to pledge your support! 

The United Nations first celebrated Zero Discrimination Day on March 1, 2014, after UNAIDS, a UN program on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), launched its Zero Discrimination Campaign on World AIDS Day.

The Ugly Intersection of Prejudice, Immigration, and Hepatitis B

By Christine Kukka

 Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

A few weeks ago, an ill-informed New England governor proclaimed illegal immigrants were bringing in infectious diseases, including hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis. Recently, similar anti-immigration, fear-mongering from presidential candidates has filled the airways.

For hundreds of years, disease has been used as reasons to stop immigration to the United States. During the early 1800s, officials claimed the Irish brought cholera into the country. The Italians were believed to carry polio and tuberculosis was called the Jewish disease. In 1900, the Asian-American community in San Francisco was believed to be infected with bubonic plague that posed a threat to public health. Residents were subjected to mandatory injections with an experimental drug until a court order halted the local public health campaign.

Throughout the 19th and 20th century, “politics was saturated with attacks on immigrants as diseased intruders to the body politic,” wrote American University history professor Alan M. Kraut in Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants. This dialogue led to revision of the 1882 Immigration Act to exclude, “persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease” from entry into the United States. Continue reading "The Ugly Intersection of Prejudice, Immigration, and Hepatitis B"

Hepatitis B Positive Speakers Discuss HepB with Geraldine Doogue

Heartfelt discussion with the “Hepatitis B Positive Speakers Group”, led by Australia’s Geraldine Doogue, ABC TV and Radio. Join Yvonne, David, Trevor, Linh and “Tina”, as they discuss their personal hepatitis B experiences -living with the stigma, and discrimination you can both see and “not quite put your finger on”, and their willingness to give back, and to increase community awareness.

If you’re on the Hepatitis B Information and Support Listserve, you may recognize Yvonne, one of the list moderators who mentions the emotional support she gets from her her cyber friends. 

Thank you Hepatitis Australia for sharing this discussion! 

 

HBV Employee Screening By Suppliers of Your Favorite Apple Gadgets -Tip of the Iceberg, But Commendable

Apple recently revealed a list of its suppliers of the iphone, ipad and other gadgets, and the labor, health and health and environmental violations against some of the offenders. Most of these violations were out of Taiwan and China.  Included in the list of violations was the screening of employees for hepatitis B. What will this disclosure mean to those living with hepatitis B in China and around the world?  Apple has responded to each of the violations that were uncovered and says it will end relationships with repeat offenders. Will this stop discrimination against those living with HBV? Probably not, but it may stir-the-pot, encouraging other corporations to do the same.  Apple has star power, and the ability to make waves due to their success and reputation.  However, it is likely that foreign suppliers will circumvent the system and continue screening its employees or prospective employees for hepatitis B.

The question is how a job making gadgets, or components for gadgets, for Apple or any other company could possibly pose a reasonable risk of HBV exposure to any factory employee?  Hepatitis B is not transmitted casually. It is not transmitted by sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, sharing a meal, or working side-by-side with someone on the factory floor or sharing an office with someone who has hepatitis B.  HBV is transmitted through  blood and infected body fluids through blood to blood contact, unprotected sex, unsterilized needles and from an HBV infected mother to her newborn during delivery.

Every day the Hepatitis B Foundation responds to inquiries from people around the globe. Due to the stigma associated with HBV, chronic carriers may be denied employment due only to their HBsAg positive status.  There are special circumstances where exposure prone procedures may put others at risk due to an HBV infection. This would be limited to health care positions that involve invasive procedures such as gynecologic, cardio-thoracic or surgical procedures that might put a patient at risk. These risk-prone occupations do not include – other health care positions, jobs in the food industry, the retail industry, being in an office, in a factory, on cruise line, or any number of ordinary jobs. A positive HBsAg test should not prohibit employment, or entering and working in another country.

There will always be discrimination in our world. Even with laws that protect employees in the U.S. there are ways to circumvent the system and quietly discriminate. In many countries where HBV is prevalent, discrimination is blatant.  And of course HBV screening is merely the tip of the iceberg with the violations and deplorable working conditions in countries like China. Eyes wide-open can be a little disconcerting for those of us with our favorite gadgets. Apple’s disclosure of these violations is commendable and a start in the right direction.  Hopefully other companies will step-up and follow their lead.