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Health

Pre-1990 transfusions may have infected thousands with hepatitis C

Graphic

Letters will warn people of risk

July 8, 1998
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EDT (0020 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As many as 290,000 people may be notified that they may have been accidentally infected with the hepatitis C virus during blood transfusions.

People who received blood before 1990, when screening tests were instituted, are at risk. Blood donation groups will send letters notifying those who received transfusions from blood donors who have since tested positive for the virus, which affects 4 million Americans.

"I think we are very concerned about this disease. We think it truly represents an epidemic," Surgeon General David Satcher said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday.

Last year, a government panel composed of liver experts and medical ethicists estimated that 290,000 people may have contracted the potentially serious liver infection during pre-1990 transfusions. However, the odds of infection for a person who received only a single blood donation is not terribly high.

Notifying blood recipients of the risk was delayed until government health officials were "fairly certain about the accuracy of the test," Satcher said. The most reliable screening test was instituted in June 1992.

"We did not want to falsely alarm individuals and families," he said.

But, Satcher said, people deserve to know if they have received blood from a person with hepatitis C, which is a blood-borne viral infection that can lead to sometimes fatal chronic liver damage.

"I think there are some things that we can do in terms of treatment, even though we don't have a cure. The treatment is improving every day," Satcher said.

When screening tests for hepatitis C were implemented after 1990, the risk of transfusion-borne viral transmission was greatly reduced. Experts believe the chance of such transmission today is between 1-in-10,000 and 1-in-100,000.

The American Red Cross says letters will be sent within the next one to three months by individual blood donation groups to inform some recipients that they may have been infected prior to 1990.

The Red Cross is the largest such donation group. It plans to begin prospective testing at the end of July. That means that when the Red Cross has a donor who tests positive for hepatitis C, it will check records to determine if that donor has donated blood in the past. If so, the Red Cross will contact recipients of the donated blood to notify them that they are at risk.

At the end of September, retrospective testing will begin. This means the Red Cross will test stored samples of blood from before 1992. If a sample tests positive, the agency will notify recipients of that blood that they should be tested for hepatitis C.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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