Treating Hepatitis B Runs Up Against Hmong Culture In Fresno, Calif., 17 percent of the Hmong/Laotian community has Hepatitis B. The disease is a liver killer, fairly easy to transmit, and most of the people infected don't know they have it. The problem is, even if Hmong did know they had it, most of them wouldn't treat it. That's because their collective belief system dictates they handle this, and other diseases, as a spiritual problem. From Capitol Public Radio in Sacramento, John Sepulvado reports on how public health officials are trying to combat this problem.
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Treating Hepatitis B Runs Up Against Hmong Culture

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Treating Hepatitis B Runs Up Against Hmong Culture

Treating Hepatitis B Runs Up Against Hmong Culture

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B: But as Capital Public Radio's John Sepulvado reports, many of Fresno's Hmong won't seek medical help.

JOHN SEPULVADO: Fresno can be a pretty rough town. Just ask Yeng Mua. She's short and soft spoken, but even in her sketchy neighborhood, she always felt safe when she went out with her son Yia.

YENG MUA: He has a lot of talents. He was a pro. He's a four-time kickboxing in the whole world.


SEPULVADO: Unidentified Man: Oh, a stiff punch to the breadbasket of Escobar.


SEPULVADO: Yet, despite his tough exterior, his mom says Yia was the polite, quiet and strong type. So, when Yeng found her 34-year-old son doubled over the toilet, making very painful noises, she knew something was wrong.

MUA: I see him vomiting blood a lot.

SEPULVADO: He was vomiting blood?

MUA: Yes, a lot. And we took him to Clovis Community Hospital in June.

SEPULVADO: After two weeks of tests, Yia Mua was diagnosed with liver cancer caused by untreated Hepatitis B. He died six months later. Mua was born in Laos. The HB virus is common there, as it is in most of Asia. Many immigrants from the region contract the virus from their mother during birth.

MOHAMED SHEIK: The majority of the patients with Hepatitis B do not have any symptoms. So, that's the major issue.

SEPULVADO: Sheik recently conducted a study of Hep B rates in the Fresno Hmong community. They're high. The national infection average sits at just about one percent. It's markedly higher for Asian Americans at 10 percent, with most of those carriers being foreign-born. But according to Sheikh's research, recently published in the journal of Community Health, that number jumps again to 17 amongst the largely immigrant Hmong community.

SHEIK: Hmong people might be having more infections as compared with the rest of the Asian population because they are more secluded and isolated community.

SEPULVADO: Sophia DeWitt oversees health initiatives at the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a social service organization.

SOPHIA DEWITT: If 17 percent of the community in Fresno County is likely to be Hep B positive and most of those who are infected aren't aware of their status, clearly there's more that needs to be done.

SEPULVADO: DeWitt says canvassing and educational outreach efforts have been somewhat successful. Now, her and other health workers are trying to marry the Hmong's cultural beliefs with traditional Western medical care. Basically, they're saying, you can see a doctor, get immunized and keep your folk medicines - but that's a tough sell.


SEPULVADO: Down the street from DeWitt's Fresno office at the golden bowl Asian market, there is a family shopping for herbs. Kathleen Ying is 17 and she says her mother's been using chutes, herbs and vegetables to make medicines for most of her life.

KATHLEEN YING: It's like tea. It's fresh. It's, like, fresh.

SEPULVADO: Ying says there's a generational gap. She says her friends would go see a doctor - in fact, she wants to be a nurse after college - but her parents are scared to seek Western medical care. Instead, Ying says, they stick to their homemade medicines.

YING: Yeah, well, they like it because it reminds them of home. They're more comfortable with it because that's the only type of medicine they had. We're more Americanized now.

SEPULVADO: For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado in Sacramento.

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