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Message - September 30, 2001
Rush to Give Blood Uncovers Disease


Hepatitis C rates higher than expected in first-time donors after terrorist attacks

By Carol Smith

Some of the first-time donors who rushed to give blood in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks are now discovering they may need medical assistance of their own in the future.

More than twice as many people as expected tested positive for hepatitis C, a potentially debilitating liver disease, after doting blood, according to the records from the Puget Sound Blood Center.

It's hard when someone finds out they have a disease such as hepatitis C, said Keith Warnack, spokesman for the blood center. On the other hand, they found out something important that will help keep them healthy.

About 20, or 0.7 percent, of the 2712 first-time donors who turned out between September 11th and September 16th tested positive for the disease even after disclosing no known risk factors. Their blood won't be used.

During typical blood drives, only about 0.3 percent of donors test positive for hepatitis C, Warnack said.

The data collected by blood banks around the country after the outpouring of donations to give public health officials a rare glimpse into the prevalence of the disease, which is to believe to infect about two percent of the general population.

Some health advocates, however, believe the rate could be much higher.

Between 10 and 20 percent of people who test positive don't know how they contracted it, said Michael Ninburg, executive director of the hepatitis education project, a Seattle-based group to provide support and information.

Some risk factors include injection drug users, having had a blood transfusion prior to 1992 or having received clotting agents before 1987.

Having multiple sex partners also increases the risk.

The health department has not seen the data yet, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief of the communicable disease control program for public health Seattle and King County. But the numbers did not surprise him.

The number of people reported to the public health department has been growing as awareness has grown and more people have been tested, he said.

Some cases spontaneously resolve, he said.

But between 75 percent and 85 percent will develop into a chronic infection, and between 10 to 20 percent of those will eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver.

Currently, hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver transplants in the country.

Avoiding alcohol primary method of reducing damage from hepatitis C, said the Duchin.


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