- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- 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.