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Hepatitis C Test Kit OK'D

The government has approved the first at-home test for hepatitis C, coinciding with a massive public health campaign against the dangerous liver virus.

An estimated 3.9 million Americans have hepatitis C, but many do not know that the virus silently lurks in their bodies.

Because there are now a few drugs to treat hepatitis C, doctors have launched campaigns for all at-risk people to be tested.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Home Access Health Inc.'s Hepatitis C Check Wednesday, offering the choice of an anonymous, at-home test instead of going to a clinic.

People would use a special lancet to prick a finger, put a few drops of blood on special paper and mail it to Home Access Health's laboratories. Results are available within four to 10 business days. The company will offer counseling and referrals to physicians.

The test tells whether a person has ever been infected with hepatitis C, but cannot tell if that infection is active. Some people can overcome the virus without medical help, although 85 percent develop a chronic, simmering infection that they can spread to others. Users of at-home tests will have to see a doctor to tell if they have that simmering infection.

Hepatitis C, which kills up to 10,000 Americans each year, is the most common bloodborne infection in the U.S. and the leading reason for liver transplants. Most people with chronic infection will suffer at least some liver damage, especially if they drink alcohol, and 15 percent will develop severe damage.

Sharing intravenous drug needles is the chief source of hepatitis C, causing 60 percent of cases.

But 300,000 Americans are estimated to have been infected from blood transfusions before 1992. Today, the risk of getting hepatitis C from a transfusion is very small, because the blood supply is strictly tested.

But those tests weren't available before 1992, so the government last fall began a massive campaign urging anyone who had pre-1992 transfusions to get tested. Some blood banks are offering free hepatitis C testing to those patients.

The government also recommends testing for anyone who ever injected drugs, even once as a teen-ager 20 years ago; has had sex with an injecting drug user; hemophiliacs who used clotting factors before 1987; and recipients of pre-1992 organ transplants.

The at-home test will be available in June, and is expected to cost under $70, Home Access said. It doesn't require a prescription.

The kit will be sold on the company's Internet site www.homeaccess.com or by calling 1-888-888-HEPC.

Written By Lauran Neergaard

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