WASHINGTON (AP) - Government advisers recommended Tuesday that anyone who had a blood transfusion before 1992 should be tested for hepatitis C, a serious liver infection.
There should be a massive public health campaign, complete with advertising that tells people who have no insurance where they can find free testing at public clinics, said a Public Health Service blood advisory committee.
In addition, blood banks nationwide must check their records for any donor who has tested positive for hepatitis C since 1992, and then trace records of any recipients of blood from that donor dating back to 1987, the panel recommended. Those recipients must be notified by a letter that they should be tested for the infection.
An estimated 290,000 Americans got hepatitis C from transfusions before the first tests for the virus were created in 1990. And that first test needed improvements, so it wasn't until mid-1992 that blood banks had highly effective screening.
"I don't think anybody needs to panic and feel they must call their doctor in the morning," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist and chairman of the panel. "It is a slow-acting virus. ... But if people are concerned, if they think they had a transfusion before 1992, if they tried IV drugs even once, talk to your doctor."
About 4 million Americans have hepatitis C, the vast majority caused by tainted intravenous drug needles. Many don't know they're infected because they experience few if any symptoms for many years, but others develop serious, even fatal, liver disease.
New research that suggests hepatitis C patients infected through blood are especially vulnerable to liver failure has sparked the renewed push to notify people at risk.
Government officials will review the panel's recommendation within the month. If Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala agrees, the public health campaign could begin as soon as mid-September, said HHS's Dr. Eric Goosby. Blood banks could take several more months to begin checking their records.
The risk of catching hepatitis C from a blood transfusion today is very small - between 1 case in 10,000 donations and 1 in 100,000 donations.
Yet the government never notified Americans who received blood before 1990 that they were at risk, and has no method of tracing the smaller number of blood recipients who still received possibly tainted blood between 1990 and today.
Under the new recommendation, the blood banks would be required to trace anyone infected today.
The blood advisory panel told the government it was very important that no one miss hepatitis C testing because of cost. Panel members urged the government to make sure that private insurers, managed care companies and even Medicaid and Medicare promptly offer the test to anyone who needs it.