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[BEIJING] Chinese and US researchers have said illegal blood donation is to blame for high levels of hepatitis C infection in rural China.

Although illegal blood donation practices were stopped by the Chinese government in the late 1990s, methods of collecting and storing blood need to be urgently improved to stop the virus spreading further, say the team.

The researchers say their findings — and the fact that there is no vaccine for hepatitis C — have worrying health implications for other developing countries as well, where blood donors are rarely tested for the virus before giving blood.

According to the team, the illegal pooling of blood from different donors and unhygienic methods used by commercial blood donation centres in the 1980s and 1990s in rural China have helped the virus — which causes severe liver disease — spread much faster than it otherwise would have.

Researchers from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the US University of Alabama tested more than 500 adults in the northwestern Chinese province of Shanxi for hepatitis C infection.

More than one-fifth of the villagers had sold blood, often to supplement their livelihoods, between 1973 and 1998.

Overall, eight per cent of the villagers had the virus. But this figure rose to 28 per cent when the researchers looked only at former blood donors. About three per cent of non-donors had the virus.

People who had received transfusions were also eight times more likely to get hepatitis C than people who had never had one.

The researchers say that despite illegal practices being condemned by the government, standards of blood collection and blood storage desperately need to be improved to stop the spread of the virus.

Illegal blood donation centres in China were shut down in the late 1990s because of growing health concerns as villagers began to show symptoms of abnormal liver function.

Hepatitis C is not just a problem in China. In an accompanying editorial, Roger Dodd of the American Red Cross points out that in many parts of the developing world, the test for the hepatitis C virus is the one that is most likely to be omitted in blood donation practices.

"[Poor] practice, pursuit of the bottom line [money], and lack of oversight can have devastating outcomes not only for patients but also for donors," writes Dodd.

Forty million people across China are infected with hepatitis C.

The team publish their findings online in the 15 November issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Reference: Journal of Infectious Diseases 192, 1694 (2005)

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