Hunt begins for hepatitis-infected patients Patients at risk from hepatitis to be traced

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The Independent Online
Three thousand former hospital patients who received blood transfusions before September 1991 are to be traced by health officials because they are believed to be infected with the liver disease, hepatitis C.

Dr Jeremy Metters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, announced yesterday that all GPs and relevant hospital departments had received notes and guidance on "patients' questions" because of the feared panic that their decision may bring. The decision to track the patients who caught hepatitis C from an infected blood supply was made because a treatment is now available, Dr Metters said at a briefing yesterday.

The 3,000 patients, spread all over the United Kingdom, are believed to be the number surviving today out of more than 6,000 who may have been infected by blood donations.

Since September 1991 each blood donation has been tested for the virus, but before then doctors estimate 1 in 2,000 donations was infected.

Dr Metters advised patients who had transfusions before that time to wait until they were contacted.

"It is important to get this into perspective," he said. "If there has been an infection, hepatitis C takes a long time to cause symptoms. The public should not be unduly alarmed. But we are concerned that doctors may be besieged."

In November, the Independent revealed the extent of the problem of hepatitis C in the blood supply up to four years ago. Apart from the transfused patients another 3,000 haemophiliacs have been infected, most of whom are aware of it.

Dr Metters has set up a working party to plan the tracking process. Infected blood batches will be traced back to the hospitals to which they were sent. Then the records must be searched to locate the patients who received the blood. Finally the patientsthemselves will be traced.

He said he hoped the process could be completed by the end of the summer. In the meantime, a helpline number, 0800 716197, has been set up for anyone who is anxious .

When the tracing process begins in a few weeks, affected patients will be offered the test for hepatitis C and counselling. Dr Metters said the Department of Health was confident that it had no liability. The test for identifying infected donated blood was used as soon as a reliable method became available, he said.

Ministers have already said that they will not pay compensation to those infected. From 1985, blood products were heat treated to remove the risk of HIV infection, but the process cannot be used on whole fresh blood. Hepatitis C was identified in 1989, but it was not until 1991 that a reliable test became available, and the National Blood Authority was able to screen donations.

Hepatitis C is a chronic liver disease contracted through blood-to-blood contact. It can be asymptomatic for 10 to 30 years.

There is a 20 to 50 per cent risk of an infected person developing chronic liver disease. Of those who do, 50 per cent will have cirrhosis of the liver, with 20 per cent of these going on to develop liver cancer.