Hundreds of thousands of Americans who had blood transfusions years ago will receive letters warning that they may have been infected with hepatitis C, a serious liver disease that often shows no symptoms for years.
"We know that many Americans infected with hepatitis C are unaware they have the disease," 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 up to 20 years for symptoms to surface.
There is no cure, but various treatments are in use as doctors search 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 human resources subcommittee.
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. 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.