The Quiet Virus

A tattoo etched on Taylor Owen's arm some 25 years ago may be responsible for transforming him from a successful banker to a full-time patient struggling to beat Hepatitis-C before it destroys his liver.

"It could've been from infected (tattoo) needles," he says.

Anne Jesse is fighting the same battle, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts. She was probably infected by a blood transfusion 25 years ago, but wasn't diagnosed until five years ago, long after the virus had begun to take its toll.

"I went in because I was due for a regular checkup and wound up being diagnosed with a disease I had never heard of," she says.

As the head of a national resource center on Hepatitis-C, Jesse says her case is more the norm than the exception. "There are more than four million people known to be infected with Hepatitis-C," she says, "and more than half of those don't know they're infected."

That's more than two million Americans who are infected with an incurable disease, but don't know it. Now, health officials are pulling out all the stops to find them and curb the spread of Hepatitis-C.

Dr. Hannis Thompson says, "All patients transfused before 1992 should consider getting tested."

The Centers for Disease Control agrees. Two weeks ago it ordered blood centers around the country to begin sending letters to doctors notifying them if their patients had received blood products from known infected donors. The most common source of infection was blood transfusions before 1992, when a screening test for Hepatitis-C was developed.

"Our next step will be to notify patients directly if can find them and get them to come in," says Thompson.

But notification letters are expected to reach only about 300,000 of the four million Americans believed to have the virus. Other people may have contracted it through needle sharing, tattoos, even body piercing. So health advocates say more research funding and education are needed to avert a larger crisis.

Statistics indicate 3 1/2 percent of people between the ages of 35 and 55 have chronic Hepatitis-C. That means almost one out of every 25 Americans in that age group.

At Dr. Greg Everson's liver clinic in Colorado, it's standing room only. "Hepatitis-C is the leading indication in the U.S. for liver transplantation," he says.

Like the long identified A and B strains, Hepatitis-C attacks the liver. But it is far more destructive and it can take years for any symptoms to develop.

So people who were infected in the 60's and 70's, such as Vietnam War vets or people who experimented even once with IV drugs, are only now showing up on the critical list.

"Hepatoma is liver cancer," Everson says. "In 1997 we had 27 cases in this hospital, in the first three months of this year we've already seen 18-20 cases, all or most related to Hepatitis-C."

While there's no cure for Hepatitis-C, in 20 to 40 percent of patints diagnosed before liver damage has occurred, the disease can be effectively controlled with medication.

Drug therapy has worked for Ann Jesse. She's one of the lucky ones who's able to enjoy the life she s always led.

Taylor Owen is not so lucky. With a severe form of Hepatitis-C, he has few options now. "My body's been fighting a virus for 25 years," he says "I'd like to know what its like not to have it."

So he's doing what he can do to keep his liver healthy, like turning to holistic medicine, hoping to hang on until science finds a way beat the virus.