Pubdate: Fri. 6 Mar. 1998
Source: The Standard-Times, Serving the South Coast of Massachusetts
Author: Laura Meckler, Associated Press writer
Note:  Please mail any comments to GOVERNMENT TO WARN HEPATITIS C VICTIMS

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 yesterday.

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 percent to 70 percent chance of having the virus.

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.