Vets at Higher Risk for Hepatitis C

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Many veterans unknowingly harbor a liver-destroying
virus, according to a new campaign encouraging veterans to seek testing
and treatment for hepatitis C.

An estimated 2.7 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C. Although
it kills up to 10,000 Americans a year, it can lurk for decades without
causing symptoms, so many people don't know they are infected until their
liver is seriously damaged.

Veterans may be at special risk. The Department of Veterans Affairs
estimates that 8 percent to 10 percent of veterans treated at VA medical
centers have hepatitis C - an infection rate some five times higher than
in the general population.

Veterans treated by the VA tend to have poorer health, so no one can say
if all veterans have such a high risk, cautions the VA's Dr. Toni Mitchell.

But more veterans need to demand testing, says Terry Baker of the Vietnam
Veterans of America, director of a new campaign that is launching ads and
an Internet site to increase hepatitis C awareness.

The VA ``is not giving out the information to the vets,'' he said.

In a survey of 500 veterans commissioned by the Veterans Aimed Toward
Awareness campaign, 60 percent said they have not been tested because they
don't believe they are at risk.

The campaign is partially funded by a $130,000 grant from Schering-Plough
Corp., which makes the only government-approved hepatitis C treatment.

The chief risk factors are injection drug use - even a single
experimentation with drugs 20 or 30 years ago could have spread the virus
- and blood transfusions before 1992, when the blood supply was first
tested for hepatitis C.

Other risks include having had sex with an injecting drug user; using
hemophilia clotting factors before 1987; long-term kidney dialysis;
tattooing with unsterilized equipment.

Any veteran who requests a hepatitis C test at a VA medical center is
supposed to get it, and those hospitals also are supposed to ask veterans
if they have any risks that would trigger testing, said Mitchell, who
investigates complaints if that doesn't happen.

Treatment is still somewhat controversial. The VA is following National
Institutes of Health guidelines that recommend treatment if a liver biopsy
shows damage, Mitchell said.
AP-NY-09-23-99 0256EDT

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.

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