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Panel sees more hepatitis C deaths

Hepatitis C, a usually silent, blood-borne disease, will kill about 24,000 Americans annually within 20 years and current treatments are not effective for most patients, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

A committee sponsored by the National Institutes of Health reported that about 4-million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, spread mostly through needle-sharing by drug users, and that about 20 percent of them will develop cirrhosis of the liver, an often fatal disorder.

"There is a large reservoir of patients with chronic (hepatitis C) disease who will become ill, require liver transplants or die," said Dr. D.

W. Powell of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Powell was chairman of a panel of experts selected by the NIH to evaluate the current understanding, diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C.

In their report, the 12 committee members said that treatment of the disease with current drugs has been disappointing because only about 20 percent of patients with chronic disease have been cured.

"The therapy has been effective for some, but the rate of complete clearance (cure) is quite small," said Powell.

For most people, hepatitis C is benign, with few symptoms or signs of illness for many years.

"A good portion of people don't know they are infected," said Powell.

About 15 percent of patients throw off the disease without medical help. The rest, however, develop a chronic infection that never goes away. The health of most of these patients is never seriously affected, although they all are carriers who can give the virus to others.

The principal drugs used are all based on interferon, an immune system protein produced by the body to fight viral infections.

Treatment requires injections three times a week for six months to a year. The committee found that the longer treatment period produces better results. Coincidently, the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday extended approval to use one of the hepatitis C drugs for up to two years.

While hepatitis C is spread most commonly by needle sharing, it can also be spread through blood transfusions, but this has become very uncommon _ about 1 case per 10,000 transfusions _ as the result of a blood test that detects the disease in blood donors.

Powell said sexual relations with many partners is also a risk factor since the virus can be present in both blood and body fluids.