In a development experts say they have anticipated with apprehension, significant numbers of homosexual men in the Los Angeles area are starting to contract a newly recognized variety of hepatitis--a type more severe, disabling and more frequently fatal than the two major common strains.
The situation is complex and the number of cases of the new, virulent form of hepatitis is still comparatively small. Hepatitis authorities in other parts of the country are still tentative on whether the newly recognized variety, called delta virus hepatitis, has the potential to sweep through homosexual populations as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) already has.
But a nationally known USC researcher says a total of nearly 150 cases of the potentially catastrophic new hepatitis strain have been identified in the Los Angeles area recently--especially during the last three years. And, since 1981, the incidence among homosexuals has begun to accelerate markedly, according to the USC expert. The local cases of the new hepatitis strain are producing a death rate more than double that of the conventional disease.
Other experts agree that the spread of delta virus into the homosexual population--which would defy earlier observations that incidence in that group was lower than others--could mark the beginning of a dangerous and potentially deadly trend. Victims who die of the new type of hepatitis either succumb quickly in a super-acute first phase of the disease or linger when the strain turns into a chronic affliction, eventually dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 12, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 13 Column 2 View Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
On Page 2 of Tuesday's editions of The Times, a short summary of a story in the View section incorrectly described delta virus hepatitis, a newly recognized strain of the disease that is increasingly common in homosexuals, as "more deadly" than Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. There is no evidence that the new form of hepatitis is more often fatal than AIDS.
The volume of the cases and the increasing proportion of them that involve homosexuals--as opposed to drug addicts, who are still the highest risk group--have convinced the USC expert, Dr. Allan Redeker, that "the time (for the widespread dissemination of delta virus into the homosexual community) is already here."
"We feel the time has come," he continued, "at least in this community."
Experts across the country emphasized that delta virus is probably not technically a new entity. In fact, cases have been clearly identified in the United States as long as 40 years ago. But it has become recognized as a potentially widespread problem only within the last three to 10 years, most researchers agree.
Redeker, who holds professor rank at the USC Medical School, heads the liver unit at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey. Redeker is the nation's top expert on the ramifications of delta virus hepatitis for homosexual populations, according to Dr. Stephen Hadler, a hepatitis specialist at the federal government's National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Redeker discussed the local delta virus situation last week after publication in the New England Journal of Medicine of a study organized by Italian researchers in which scientists examined the emergence and possible spread of the new hepatitis type. The Rancho Los Amigos unit contributed some of the data to the worldwide analysis, headed by a team in Turin, Italy.
Publication of the study in the journal was accompanied by an editorial warning that, unless ways are found to control the spread of delta virus, it could become--in the United States or, more likely, in Asia--"a new scourge."
The co-author of the editorial, Dr. Jules L. Dienstag of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said it is already widely known that delta virus cases are on the increase in Los Angeles and on the East Coast. Dienstag said he was unaware of the still unpublished data on involvement of homosexuals in the spread, but he said that development is one many hepatitis experts fear.
"What worries us," he said in a telephone interview, "is that once it (delta virus) gets through the homosexual community, it could spread like wildfire."
Redeker's detailing of the spread of delta virus to local homosexuals came in response to questions posed last Friday by The Times. He was asked about American data included in the worldwide summary. Redeker's disclosures also follow by several months extensive press coverage of an outbreak of delta virus in Worcester, Mass., which has so far involved more than 200 people since late 1983.
Most of the Worcester victims have been addicts who inject drugs, and sexual partners of those addicts. Nine persons have died in the Worcester outbreak, which is believed to be the first major instance in which a significant number of cases has occurred in a comparatively short time in the United States.
Redeker said, however, that delta virus cases in Los Angeles have been traced to the late 1960s and early 1970s and that the total incidence here may be higher than the Worcester caseload, although the large numbers in Massachusetts in less than two years clearly constitute a significant development.