Arizona Republic
June 23, 2007

 (Phoenix, AZ) Author: Connie Midey, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

Asian-Americans often are held up as models of good health: trim, physically active, moderate in diet and thus less subject to illness and disease.

The reality is far more complex, says professor Marjorie Kagawa-Singer of the University of California-Los Angeles School of Public Health and Asian American Studies Center. "The myth of the healthy, wealthy and wise Asian-American and Pacific Islander is not true," she says.

Pacific Islanders have some of the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancers in the world, she says.

"Their health status is actually quite similar to that of Native Americans and African-Americans," she says, "and they have some of the same problems with obesity."

Among Asian-Americans, she says, cancer is the No. 1 cause of death (for other Americans it's cardiovascular disease), and the prevalence of hepatitis B is 14 to 20 percent. It's 0.2 percent in the rest of the population.

Kagawa-Singer will talk about health issues facing people of Asian and Pacific Island descent at a conference Thursday in Phoenix. The conference is presented by the Asian Pacific Community in Action, a non-profit organization in Phoenix.

Doug Hirano, executive director of the organization and an epidemiologist with a master's degree in public health, says generalizations about Asians'
and Pacific Islanders' health mean "severe problems sometimes get overlooked. We're trying to raise awareness of the issues and get more information out to the community."

Within the two broad population groups, health status and lifestyles can vary widely. The Pacific Island population encompasses about 27 nationalities and even more ethnic groups within them. In Fiji, for example, south Asians and Fijians experience different health outcomes, Kagawa-Singer says.

Asian-Americans represent about 40 nationalities and multiple ethnic groups within each, and they speak more than 100 languages. She says they are the only ethnicity overrepresented at both the low and high ends of the major indicators of health -- income, education and social status.

"The high-risk groups, who are the low-income, monolingual, newer immigrants, get lost when you average everybody together," she says.

Asians make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, and 70 percent of them are new immigrants, sometimes underinsured or uninsured, and unversed in navigating the American health care system.

But even after generations here, they can be harmed indirectly by health care providers' and their own misperceptions. Some are less attentive to symptoms and healthy lifestyle measures, accepting, for example, the myth that because they're thin, they're at low risk for diabetes. But for Asians, diabetes can occur at a lower body-mass index than for other groups, Kagawa-Singer says.

Similarly, Japanese-American women, who have overtaken non-Hispanic White women for the highest rate of breast cancer, may not be diagnosed at early, more treatable stages.

"They've been told by their physicians, 'You're Asian. You can't have breast cancer,' " says Kagawa-Singer, a registered nurse who does breast cancer research.

Believing they are safe, and in some cases restrained by modesty, Asian-American women get mammograms at a lower rate than any other ethnic group in the United States, she says.

Health benefits of the traditional Asian diet, with 10 to 15 percent fat compared with about 40 percent in the dominant American diet, diminish over time.

"Cancer rates, for example, will mirror those of the host country after a generation here," she says. "But because a lot of these issues aren't known, people think they're not vulnerable. They're not aware that their risk factors are changing and that they should be checked."

Asian Pacific Community in Action

What: Community conference on Asian and

Pacific Islander health disparities.

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Black Canyon Conference Center,

9440 N. 25th Ave., Phoenix.

Admission: $30, $15 for students.

Details: Register at (602) 265-4598.