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Hepatitis C emerges as threat to blood supply

The Story


It's a familiar story: a deadly virus has infected the blood supply. Many people don't know they're infected until their symptoms prompt a test and a diagnosis. But this isn't AIDS: it's hepatitis C, which can lie dormant in the body for years before causing chronic infections, liver disease and death. A CBC documentary reveals that thousands of Canadians have the virus and don't know it. The Canadian Red Cross is poised to recommend that anyone who received a blood transfusion before 1990 get tested for hepatitis C. Many observers wonder why the Red Cross doesn't seem to have learned anything from its experience with HIV in the early '80s -- especially when steps could have been taken to slow the spread of hepatitis C.

Medium: Television
Program: Prime Time News
Broadcast Date: Dec. 13, 1994
Guests: Peter Gill, Jenny Heathcott, Mel Lastman, Peter Lavigne, Arlene Steiner
Host: Pamela Wallin
Reporter: Leslie MacKinnon
Duration: 12:30

Did You know?


• Hepatitis is a virus that affects the liver. There are several strains:
- Hepatitis A is a short-term treatable infection that can be spread in unsanitary conditions as well as through sexual contact.
- Hepatitis B is more serious since the infection lasts a lifetime and can cause cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and death. It can be spread through unprotected sex, but there is a vaccine which can prevent it.

• Hepatitis C was only named in 1989 -- before then, the virus was termed non-A, non-B hepatitis. Eighty per cent of carriers have no symptoms, and there is no vaccine. Between 75 and 85 per cent of carriers will eventually develop chronic infections and many will require a liver transplant. Hepatitis C is rarely spread through sexual contact; the main transmission method is through blood, such as reusing dirty tattoo needles or sharing needles when shooting drugs.

• For decades, administrators and users of the blood system had long been aware of the risks of transmitting hepatitis A and B through blood products. The presence of hepatitis was judged an acceptable risk by both the Red Cross and hemophiliacs.

• Even though public awareness of hepatitis C was low, the Krever Commission addressed it early in the inquiry. Hemophiliacs in particular were already aware of the threat it posed.

• An estimated 95 per cent of hemophiliacs who used blood products before 1990 contracted hepatitis C.

• About 300,000 Canadians have hepatitis C as of 2003. Estimates of how many contracted the virus through the blood supply vary wildly, from about 12,000 to over 60,000. The higher number is extrapolated from infection rates in the United States. Many people aren't aware they carry the virus, as it can lay dormant for years.


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The Krever Report: Canada's Tainted Blood Disaster more