Community physician fights Valley hepatitis threat

Many people in the Fresno region who have hepatitis might not even know it. It’s hard to detect without a blood test and can be deadly if left untreated. Some were born with it, others acquired it and some won’t know they have it until the damage is done. 
However, Valley residents who have chronic liver disease due to viral hepatitis now have help through leading-edge research at Community Regional Medical Center.

Dr. Muhammad Sheikh has been leading clinical trials over the last several years to help those who have nowhere else to turn. Dr. Sheikh, Community Regional’s chief of gastroenterology and hepatology, says hepatitis is a leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and catching it early is imperative.

“The majority of patients with hepatitis C are symptom free. But some of them have fatigue,” Dr. Sheikh said. “If we catch a patient at an early stage, the studies have found that the patient will respond very favorably as compared to the later stages of diagnosis and treatment.”

These clinical trials allow patients access to cutting-edge medicines and treatment without ever having to leave the Valley for care. Patients are sometimes too sick to travel long distances to get treatment.

“Previously, they use to go to Sacramento, San Francisco or Los Angeles to get those types of therapies,” Dr. Sheikh said.

Hepatitis can be passed to other people in a number of ways such as unprotected sex, injection drug use, blood transfusions before the early 1990s, tattoos or sharing needles or razors. Also, ethnicity can play a role in the risk of hepatitis.

“Our Central Valley has a 40% Latino population. That population has a relatively higher risk of developing hepatitis C as compared to the Caucasian patient population,” Dr. Sheikh said. “Similarly, if you look at our Asian population in the Valley, they are at a tremendous risk for developing hepatitis B. So the prevalence of hepatitis B is very high in this area.”

Dr. Sheikh says education and immediate care to these and other high-risk populations will save lives.

“Let’s eradicate the disease from our community, particularly hepatitis B. We have new treatment options available and we can work to prevent contracting hepatitis B.”

Chronic hepatitis B infection (HBV) is the major cause of primary liver cancer worldwide and Asians are disproportionately affected. The prevalence of HBV among most Asian American groups has been well documented, except in Hmong immigrants in the United States, according to Dr. Sheikh. His recent study reaches out to help the 65,000-member Hmong population in the Central Valley.

Dr. Sheikh says in the United States, there are an estimated 1.25 million people with chronic HBV infection. The prevalence of chronic HBV infection in Asian Americans is between 10 to 15% compared to only 0.3% for the general United States population.

A retrospective study conducted in St. Paul, Minn. found that Hmong Americans have an 18% prevalence of HBV, with the rate of infection being highest among patients who were between 15 to 19 years of age, said Dr. Sheikh. Another retrospective from Michigan reported that Hmong Americans had the highest prevalence rate of HBV infection among those screened.

With these high rates of infection, Dr. Sheikh says it is imperative these at-risk populations are aware and educated about treatment options. Both education and the vaccine for Hepatitis B are effective tools for prevention, he says. Children are now vaccinated when they’re babies and in school.

Dr. Sheikh’s work means a lot to Valley patients who have nowhere else to turn.

“Just go get checked. If you have any doubt, go get checked,” said patient Ermalinda Contino. “It means a lot and I don’t even have words to explain what this program has done for me.”

For more information about Dr. Sheikh’s research program or educational material on hepatitis, please call 559-459-3882.


This story was reported by Mary Lisa Russell. She can be reached at mrussell@communitymedical.org.