Hospital sends hepatitis warnings

Posted: Wednesday, November 01, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaskans who received blood transfusions at the Alaska Native Center prior to 1992 -- before a reliable test for hepatitis C was available-- will be getting letters urging them to be tested for the liver disease.

Other Anchorage hospitals are considering similar massive searches for transfusion patients.

Before 1992, only a small percentage of blood supplies came from infected people. However, it is hard to determine who received those supplies, so doctors want everybody tested.

Hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, cancer or even death. Symptoms include jaundice, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. The disease can progress slowly for decades and show few symptoms.

Hepatitis C is treatable with drugs, but only about 40 percent of patients respond.

More than 4 million Americans are infected with the disease and about 11,000 Alaskans are believed to have it, according to estimates from national health experts. Alaska only started requiring doctors to report hepatitis C in 1996. As a result, 3,476 cases have been reported statewide.

Some Alaskans who have received letters urging them to be tested were caught by surprise because they didn't know they were at risk.

''Many people don't remember they had a blood transfusion,'' said Dr. Brian McMahon of Alaska Native Medical Center. ''They were under medication. They don't remember exactly what happened in the hospital because they were so sick.''

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that medical facilities nationwide try to find everyone who received blood from them before 1992. The effort is time consuming and costly, but Alaska Native Medical Center received a grant to sift through old medical records and issue warnings.

Only half of the 3,400 people who received transfusions during that period are still alive, McMahon said. So far the center has sent out about 200 letters and 150 people have been tested. About 8 percent came back positive, McMahon said.

The center eventually intends to send out up to 3,000 letters to include patients who received blood transfusions during cardiac surgery or at Providence Alaska Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit before 1992.

Alaska Regional Hospital and Providence Alaska Medical Center are considering similar reviews and warnings in the future, hospital spokesmen said.

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