A Comprehensive Cancer Center Designated by the National Cancer Institute

Pathways to Discovery: Winter 2011

Kim Provides Voice to Out ‘Silent Killer’

Hepatitis B is second only to tobacco in causing the most cancer-related deaths in the world.
—Karen E. Kim, MD, MS

Spreading awareness about the prevalence and potential long-term negative effects of untreated hepatitis B, especially among Asian Americans, is a passion for Karen E. Kim, MD, MS, associate professor of medicine and director of the UCCCC’s Office of Community Engagement and Cancer Disparities (OCECD).

“Worldwide, two billion people are infected with hepatitis B, including 370 million people who have chronic hepatitis B,” said Dr. Kim. “These 370 million people will face more serious problems later on. This is an enormous disease burden.”

While most people with acute disease recover without lasting liver damage, up to one-quarter of people with chronic hepatitis B develop chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. A disproportionately high number of them are minorities.

“One out of five people in parts of Asia has chronic hepatitis B. This is important because 75% of Asians in Chicago are foreign born,” said Dr. Kim during a presentation at the Intercultural Cancer Council’s Regional Symposium on Minorities, The Medically Underserved & Cancer. The OCECD was a cosponsor of the event held in September at the UIC Forum in Chicago.

A vaccination against the hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been widely available since the early 1990s and has become a regular part of the childhood vaccine regimen; however, hepatitis B remains a global epidemic.

“Hepatitis B is second only to tobacco in causing the most cancer-related deaths in the world,” said Dr. Kim, who is also president of the Asian Health Coalition. “We have the ability to eradicate this disease by treating those who have hepatitis B and vaccinating those who do not. The problem is hepatitis B symptoms can be silent—until very late in the process. Many people just feel tired, and who’s not tired these days?”

Dr. Kim’s mother died from hepatitis B-related causes in 1996. She was the assistant superintendant for the Chicago Board of Education and was very high functioning until close to her death. Dr. Kim not only wants to educate people about hepatitis B, but she is also on a mission to significantly increase funding for hepatitis B research. “We’ve made very little progress in survival rates from primary liver cancer. Survival rates have increased only from 4% in 1974 to 7% in 1999. That’s not enough.”

HBV is transmitted by blood, sexual contact, and birth to an infected mother; however, some routes of transmission are still unknown. The U.S. government’s new Healthy People 2020 campaign challenges individuals, communities, and professionals to take steps to ensure that good health, as well as long life, are enjoyed by all. One of the revised objectives from Healthy People 2010 is to reduce new hepatitis B infections in adults aged 19 and older.

“We need to make hepatitis B eradication a priority,” said Dr. Kim. “How many more people need to die? We have a vaccine.”

Regional Symposium on Minorities, The Medically Underserved & Cancer
More than 150 federal, state, county, and local health officials, community-based activists/organizations, researchers, and other medical professional attended the Intercultural Cancer Council conference co-sponsored by the UCCCC.

The conference included workshops, student poster sessions, lectures, and a Marketplace of Ideas networking opportunity. Lecture topics ranged from disparities in cancer pain, to the benefits communities receive from research, to healthcare reform.

(from left) Cristal Thomas, MPP, director of Region V for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Shaan Trotter, MSc, conference co-organizer, and Bechara Choucair, MD, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Karen E. Kim, MD, MS, hosted the breakout session “Infections & Cancer: Who’s at Risk."