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Copyright © 1998; Copyright © 1998 Reuters News Service
WASHINGTON (July 8, 1998 12:57 p.m. EDT - The U.S. government has begun the first phase in notifying hundreds of thousands of people who may have been accidentally infected with the hepatitis C virus during blood transfusions.

Letters will be mailed to those who received transfusions from blood donors who have since tested positive for the virus, which affects four million Americans.

People who received blood before June 1992, when the most reliable screening test was instituted, are at risk.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne viral infection that can lead to sometimes fatal chronic liver damage.

"I think we are very concerned about this disease. We think it truly represents an epidemic," Surgeon General David Satcher told "ABC's Good Morning America" Wednesday.

Satcher defended the government mass mailing that some experts think may create unnecessary anxiety.

"People deserve to know what we know in terms of the risks if they've received blood from a person with hepatitis C. Also, I think there are some things that we can do in terms of treatment, even though we don't have a cure. The treatment is improving every day," he said.

"We have delayed doing this until, number one, we were fairly certain about the accuracy of the test, and we did not want to falsely alarm individuals and families," Satcher added.

Screening tests for the virus were implemented after 1990, greatly reducing the risk of transfusion-borne viral transmission. Experts believe the chance of such transmission today is between 1-in-10,000 and 1-in-100,000.

Last year, a government panel composed of liver experts and medical ethicists estimated that 290,000 people may have contracted the potentially serious liver infection during pre-1990 transfusions.

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