Ji Young lives in Sydney and currently takes Viread for hepatitis B. She wrote this story about living with hepatitis B in the hope that her experiences will be able to help someone else.

This story won First Place | Korean | Lived Experience in our 2021 Hep B Chinese and Korean Writing Competition. Congratulations, Ji Young! 

The winning entries, including this story, have been published in Write to Be Heard: Hepatitis B Stories from the Chinese and Korean Communities, a tri-lingual book in English, Korean and Chinese.

My mother lived with hepatitis B, and I was infected during birth. Possibly there was no hepatitis B vaccination available for newborns in Korea around the time I was born or, if it was, my mother was unaware of it.

The first time I heard of ‘hepatitis B’ was as a high school student in Korea while in the process of becoming a blood donor. All my friends and I had gone to the blood donation centre and had our blood taken, but a few days later I received a letter with a blood test result that indicated my blood was unfit to donate.

When I asked my mother to explain she told me, for the first time, that she had been infected with hepatitis B when my grandmother gave birth to her – the same way I got it, in turn, from her.

From that point onwards I never tried to donate my blood again, however I also didn’t undergo any special medical assessments or treatments related to my hepatitis either. I spent many years like this, simply forgetting.

What hepatitis B meant for my permanent residency in Australia

In 2007, I came to Australia, and began preparing to apply for permanent residency so I could continue living here. In 2011, with all preparations completed and documents submitted, I was approaching one of the last stages – the physical examination. I completed various tests and, in a questionnaire where I had to indicate medical conditions that applied to me, I saw “hepatitis B”.

Suddenly, I was equally curious and worried that this might affect me, although I still informed the person in charge that I probably had hepatitis B. You might say that it was from that point I began my hepatitis B treatments in Australia!

I say all this lightly now but, to be honest, I had a very hard time of it.

Upon learning of my hep B status, the Immigration Office placed additional requirements atop my physical examination – and so the process for gaining my permanent residency increased. I was asked to submit a thorough blood test and ultrasound result and required to seek a doctor’s opinion about my liver condition.

Testing my liver function and viral load

As a consequence, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to see a gastroenterologist and have a blood test and an ultrasound. At the time, I was 25, never drank alcohol or smoked, and didn’t have any other medical conditions. My results indicated that my viral load was low and there were no issues with my liver function.

With the doctor’s evaluation that these good results meant there was no reason for me to have a disadvantage in my application, everything was approved, and I gained permanent Australian residency. However, the doctor also advised me to take a blood test every six months with an annual ultrasound.

I received the blood tests and ultrasounds from a regular GP and saw a specialist at a Liver Clinic for the once-a-year check-up.

Starting hepatitis B treatment

Over time, my viral load began increasing gradually, and in 2016 it skyrocketed, at which point my doctor recommended I take Viread. Thankfully, all these treatment and prevention processes, and my medication, were covered by Medicare, so I had no reason for any hesitancy.

After a few months of taking the medication I had another blood test, and thankfully, my viral load had returned to healthy levels. Even so, my doctor stressed that I must continue to have regular blood tests, as it is impossible to predict when or how my viral load could change.

In 2017, since I had moved to another address, I began attending a Liver Clinic in Liverpool. Through consultations with the doctor there, I learned that taking Viread would have no – or very little – effect, on pregnancy and childbirth.

Pregnancy and childbirth… twice!

While continuing to take my medication daily, I became pregnant with my first child. The doctor also urged me to ensure my child received the hepatitis B immunoglobulin vaccine after birth to prevent them from getting the virus.

Thankfully, I gave birth without any problems, and my child was vaccinated with the help of a midwife. Because I gave birth at the same hospital as my regular liver clinic, they were able to keep a close eye on me.

When my child was around nine months old, a blood test was done to check if they had gained immunity against hepatitis B, and thankfully, they were not infected.

After the experience gained through my pregnancy, I knew it was safe to continue my medication while carrying my second child. Currently we are in the fourth month of breastfeeding, we’re both doing fine with no issues.

Regular hepatitis B monitoring

I continue to take regular blood tests and have counselling at the Liverpool Liver Clinic – my viral load and liver health are both good.

Beyond my immediate family and my very close friends, people aren’t aware that I take medication for my hepatitis B. Since hepatitis B is not generally viewed in a positive light, I don’t tend to tell people.

Luckily, since I don’t have any issues with my liver health, I haven’t experienced any discrimination or discomfort. However, the need to swallow a pill every day for the rest of my life, and the responsibility of having to pay more attention to my health than others – including avoiding alcohol and smoking – can be daunting.

But I can endure this much to live a long, healthy life. The reason I’ve been able to live my life thus far, without any issues with my liver, is surely due to the consultations and check-ups I’ve had for over ten years.

I don’t know what kind of system is in place in Korea, but I think hepatitis B patients in Australia are taken very good care of, and for that I believe I’m truly fortunate.

Published 25 August, 2022