Hepatitis C Tests Seen
Urgently Needed For Million In US
By Maggie Fox
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Only about 6,500 out of a potential 1 million Americans have been notified they may have been infected through blood transfusions with the incurable hepatitis C virus, government agencies said Wednesday.
They said the "look-back" program was on schedule but would be slow, expensive and cumbersome. Nonetheless, they said it was worthwhile to notify people at risk so they could avoid infecting others and protect their own health.
In the meantime, people should not wait to be notified.
"If you had a transfusion before July of 1992, you need to be tested," Dr. Harold Margolis, chief of the hepatitis branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a news conference.
"It's going to take a little time to get geared up," Damon Thompson, a spokesman for Surgeon-General Dr. David Satcher, added in a telephone interview.
"Basically what we are saying here is don't wait for a letter," he said. "Here are the risk factors. If you fall into any of these categories, go see your doctor and see about getting tested."
Blood transfusions are only one risk factor for hepatitis C, which affects an estimated 4 million Americans and 170 million people worldwide. It can cause severe liver damage or liver cancer and is the main reason for liver transplants.
Only about 7 to 10 percent of patients are infected through blood transfusions. "Sixty percent of them got it from injected drug use and 20 percent from sex," Thompson said.
The virus is spread through bodily fluids such as blood or semen. People who injected drugs or who had sex with someone who may be at risk for hepatitis C are also at risk.
Many infected people suffer slow liver damage and show no symptoms, and may further damage their livers by drinking alcohol or using certain drugs.
The government has been under fire from groups such as the American Liver Foundation that say the look-back program has started off too slowly and is not properly funded.
But Margolis said U.S. health agencies will launch a more general program this summer to warn everyone who received a blood transfusion or received blood products before 1992.
Satcher announced in late 1997 that 1 million Americans could have received blood infected with hepatitis C, which was not identified until 1989. He said at the same time that the government was launching a program to notify those at risk.
A screening test developed in 1992 has helped keep the blood supply virtually free of the virus, which can cause liver cancer and liver failure. But anyone who got blood before then may have received an infected dose.
The first step in the government's effort to notify people has been to ask hospitals and transfusion centers to find out which people know they are infected and which of those donated blood. Anyone who received blood given by a person who later turned out to have hepatitis C is supposed to be notified.
"We have identified 6,500 recipients who might be at risk," said Dr. Jay Epstein, director of the blood division at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "(But) not everyone at risk would have been infected."
Epstein said the FDA had identified 290,000 units of blood donated by people who later were found to be infected with hepatitis C. He predicted another 113,000 would be identified.
Margolis said 80 percent of people they have tried to contact have died in the years since they received the contaminated blood. Epstein said he had no figures on how many of them had actually died from a transfusion-acquired hepatitis C infection.
Last week the FDA approved the first home test kit for hepatitis C. The kit, called Hepatitis C Check and made by Home Access Health Company of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, allows people to take their own blood sample and mail it in anonymously for testing.