- 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
- 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.