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ANCHORAGE - Alaskans who received blood transfusions at the Alaska Native Medical Center prior to 1992 before a reliable test for hepatitis C was available will get 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. But 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 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.
"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."
So far the center has sent out about 200 letters and 150 people have been tested. About 8 percent came back positive, McMahon said.