Hepatitis C - 4 Million In U.S. Admitted Infected
By Paul Recer
Associated Press 11-14-97
WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of Americans who had blood transfusions years ago will receive letters warning they may have been infected with hepatitis C, a serious liver infection that often shows no symptoms for years.
"We know that many Americans infected with hepatitis C are unaware they have the disease," newly installed Surgeon General David Satcher told a House subcommittee Thursday.
The Department of Health and Human Services is preparing a campaign to encourage people to get tested for the virus, which was not identified until 1988. It can take 20 years for symptoms to surface.
There is no cure, but various treatments are in use and doctors are searching for improved therapies. About 1 million of an estimated 4 million infected Americans don't realize they have the sometimes fatal virus.
"These people need to be told. They need to be tested. Many will need treatment, and many will need to learn how to prevent further spread of the disease," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House Government and Oversight's human resources subcommittee.
He compared the government's inertia on hepatitis C to its early reaction to AIDS. "Federal public health agencies have often pondered, but never implemented, a comprehensive response to this insidious infectious agent," he said.
New research suggests hepatitis C patients are particularly vulnerable to liver failure, and the virus is the leading reason for liver transplants in the United States.
Intravenous drug users make up the vast majority of hepatitis C victims, but about 300,000 people may have contracted it from a blood transfusion before the first screening tests were created in 1990. It wasn't until mid-1992 that highly reliable tests were found.
The risk of infection through a blood transfusion today is very small thanks to improved screenings.
Satcher said the department plans to write to people who received blood before 1992 from donors who later tested positive for the virus. These blood recipients have a 40% to 70% chance of having the virus.
It may be several months before the letters are sent, though. HHS agencies must still recommend details to Secretary Donna Shalala, who will then issue a regulation guiding the program.
Blood banks nationwide then must identify potential victims. They will have to check their records for any donor who tested positive for hepatitis C since 1992, then check if he or she donated blood before. If so, they will have to trace the earlier donation to the recipient.
But this will not find those who received tainted blood from a donor who never donated again. And it will not reveal those infected by dirty needles or sexual contact.
To reach them, Satcher said, the government plans an educational campaign for health care providers and the general public, an effort first recommended last summer by a Public Health Service blood advisory committee. Details will be announced in about a month, Satcher said.
While the number of new infections has dropped dramatically over the last several years, 30,000 new cases appear each year, and about 10,000 people die annually.

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