Military Personnel At Lower Risk of
Hepatitis C Infection Than Civilians,
Apr 11, 2001
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor
Military personnel are at three to five times lower risk
of becoming infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV)
than the civilian population. The primary reason:
Members of the uniformed services are less likely to
inject drugs--the most prevalent mechanism by which
the disease is spread.
Those findings are contained in an epidemiological
study, a joint effort of the Defense Department, the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) and the VA, that was released April 10.
HCV, which is carried by nearly 4 million Americans,
is a leading cause of chronic liver disease in the United
States and now the most common reason for liver
transplantation. Hepatitis C is a slowly progressive
disease that frequently is without symptoms for 10 to
The results of the study, one of the largest
epidemiological studies of hepatitis C virus infection on
record, was published last week in the American
Journal of Epidemiology.
More Veterans Infected
The researchers found that, among 10,000 active duty
personnel, only 0.5 percent had HCV, and men and
women had the same rates of infection. Among adults
in the general population, 3.7 percent of the males and
1.6 percent of the females (2.6 percent overall) were
found to be infected, according to the CDC.
Veterans, however, are faring much worse than either
active duty personnel or civilians, according to earlier
In January, The Stars And Stripes reported the VA as
estimating that almost 7 percent of veterans are
infected with HCV--a rate three times that of the
civilian population--and that "some veterans returned
from Vietnam unaware that they had become infected."
The hepatitis C virus was not identified until 1989.
"According to Gary Roselle, M.D., of the Cincinnati
VA Medical Center, 54,682 Vietnam-era veterans
tested positive for hepatitis C between 1998-99," The
Stars and Stripes reported. "Their average age was
Kirt Love, a Gulf War veteran who heads the Desert Storm
Battle Registry, told Stripes April 11 that he takes a
dim view of the latest study. "There are no third parties
or [civilians] to help verify that the study was genuinely
objective," he said.
Love said the military's HIV blood bank, which includes
skin tissue samples and biopsies turned over to the Armed
Forces Institute of Pathology, might be a better resource
for such studies.
"We have been trying for a long time to get permission
to use the resources of the vault to collect and interpret
truly meaningful data," he said.
The latest study examined 21,000 military personnel
who were serving in 1997. Blood samples from the
DoD Serum Repository were used to test for HCV
antibodies in a segment directed by the Naval Medical
Research Center in Silver Spring, Md.
In addition to active duty personnel and recruits, the
study subjects included 2,000 reservists, 2,000 troops
about to retire, 1,000 health care personnel, 1,000
troops who served prior to 1974 (the Vietnam War
era) and members of 3,000 other demographic groups.
Reservists were found to have the same level of
hepatitis HCV infection as troops on active duty, and
health care personnel and Vietnam-era veterans were
found not to be at a higher risk of infection.
HCV infection was found to be concentrated in older
"Among troops less than 35
years of age, only 0.1 percent, or
one out of 1,000 troops, had
been infected," said Dr. John
Mazzuchi, deputy assistant
secretary of defense for health
affairs. "Likewise, among 2,000
military recruits, two, or 0.1
percent, had previously been
infected with the hepatitis C
Screening Now Offered
As a result of the study, HCV screening is being
offered to personnel older than age 34 and those
separating or retiring from the military, Mazzuchi said.
"Because this age group includes 80 percent to 90
percent of troops with hepatitis C virus infection, we
have implemented this program to screen the military
population at highest risk," he said.
"In addition, we have implemented an extensive
program to identify patients who may have been
infected with the hepatitis C virus through a blood
transfusion before scientific research had developed an
accurate test for this disease."
Illicit drug use, officials say, is rare in the U.S. military
because of the mandatory drug-testing of new recruits
and random tests of personnel throughout their service,
according to Mazzuchi.
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