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Military's Hepatitis C Risk Low, But DoD Still Concerned (corrected copy)

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 24, 1999 – The military doesn't have to worry as much as the rest of America about Hepatitis C, a senior defense health official said.

But DoD doesn't want service members or their families to ignore the viral disease that can be treated but not prevented.

"What makes Hepatitis C so dangerous for us is that there is no vaccine," said John Mazzuchi, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs clinical and program policy.

A viral disease that attacks the liver, Hepatitis C causes fatigue and other symptoms that resemble "a bad case of the flu," Mazzuchi said. "It can be very debilitating." The most common way of infection is through shared needles. Before screening tests were developed in the 1990s, Hepatitis C could also be contracted through blood transfusions.

According to a recent sampling of 20,000 service members and new recruits, less than 1 percent of service members have Hepatitis C, about one-third the national average. In fact, only one of the 1,000 recruits sampled tested positive for Hepatitis C.

Mazzuchi attributes the low Hepatitis C rates to recruiting from a healthy population, and in-service drug and HIV screening programs.

"We screen people coming into the military for drug use, and we also have an active random urinalysis program," Mazzuchi said. "So drug use in the military is very low and needle drug use is minuscule."

Some behaviors related to human immunodeficiency virus are possibly related to Hepatitis C, so HIV screenings also reveal the presence of the virus, he said.

DoD was alerted to the Hepatitis C danger by Department of Veterans Affairs reports of high incidences of Hepatitis C among Vietnam veterans. Mazzuchi said the higher rates of infection could be due to the higher rate of drug use among service members in the 1960s as well as contaminated blood.

The problem only surfaced recently because it takes up to 30 years for Hepatitis C symptoms to appear, Mazzuchi said. In fact, a nationwide alert by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a possible Hepatitis C epidemic "is really more of an epidemic of discovering what was," he said. "The actual number of new cases is declining."

A test for antibodies that is used to screen blood supplies can also be used to test humans for the virus. But because the prevalence of Hepatitis C in DoD is so low, the department has followed the CDC's advice not to routinely test service members who don't show symptoms.

Meanwhile, DoD has pooled its resources with the National Institutes of Health, CDC and VA in researching new treatment methods for Hepatitis C, with the ultimate goal of developing a vaccine. Any breakthroughs, however, are likely years away, Mazzuchi said.

"We can assure our service members and families that Hepatitis C is not a major problem in the military," he said. "But because it is a serious disease, if they have symptoms, they need to go to their health care providers and discuss that with them."

Results of the DoD Hepatitis C study and risk factors associated with the disease are available under "Hot Issues" on the Military Health System home page at www.tricare.osd.mil.

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