Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver that can be spread by
unprotected sex and sharing dirty needles. But for the immigrant
Hmong community in Fresno, the most common transmission occurs from
mother to child in birth. The disease can be prevented with a
vaccine. But despite infection rates more than fifteen percent
higher than the U.S. average, Hmong carriers refuse to see a doctor
for that shot.
Fresno California can be a tough town. And resident Yeng Mua,
is short, slow moving, soft spoken woman. But she says she always
felt safe whenever she went out with her son Yia, even at
"He has a lot of talents. He was a pro," says Mua. "He was a
four time kickboxing in the whole world."
At five foot seven, and just over one hundred fifty pounds,
Yia Mua's best talent was beating his opponents senseless. Yet,
despite the tough exterior, his mom says Yia was the polite, quiet
and strong type. So when Yeng found her son doubled over the
toilet, making all kinds of racket, she knew something was
"I see him vomiting blood…A lot he was vomiting blood," Mua
says. "We went to the hospital…"
After two weeks of tests, Yia Mua was diagnosed with liver
cancer spurred by Hepatitis B. He died six months later. Like one
in six in the Fresno Hmong community, Mua contracted the disease,
and didn't even know it.
Mohamed Sheik is a doctor with the University of California at
San Francisco-Fresno. He released a study of Hep B rates in the
Hmong Community earlier this month, and the crux of that research:
Rates are way too high---17 %. And while other studies show the
Asian-American community has higher than average infection rates,
"Hmong people might be having more infections compared to the
rest of the Asian population because they are more secluded and
isolated community," says Sheik. "The majority of the patients with
this disease don't have any symptoms. So that's the major
The Hmong people began migrating en masse to Fresno in the
1970's, after the Vietnam War. Most are from the hills of Laos, and
they brought with them cultural medicines and a distrust of western
medicine. Sophia DeWitt oversees health initiatives at the Fresno
Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a social service
organization. She says despite educational efforts, including radio
PSA's and large canvassing efforts, there is still a Hmong cultural
reluctance to ask for medical help.
"They are seeking it out more than they used to," says DeWitt.
"They are not seeking it out as much as they need to. If seventeen
percent is likely to be Hep B positive, and most of them are not
aware of their status, clearly more needs to be done."
DeWitt, and others, are also trying to marry the Hmong's
cultural beliefs with traditional western medical care---by saying
you can see a doctor, get immunized, and keep your folk