Belated action is better than no action at all, particularly when it involves a serious health matter such as hepatitis C, a virus that can lead to serious, even fatal, liver disease.

The Department of Health and Human Services needs to step up its notification program regarding an estimated 300,000 people who received tainted blood transfusions before 1992. That's the number who received transfusions from donors who later tested positive for hepatitis C. According to Surgeon General David Satcher, those blood recipients have a 40 percent to 70 percent chance of having the virus. More stringent testing methods have dramatically lowered the chance of infection from donated blood since 1990.But while Satcher was decrying the virus and saying the department plans to write to people who received the tainted transfusions, several months may elapse before the letters are sent. That's because recommendations will be sent to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, who then will issue regulations to guide the program.

That kind of red-tape delay is unconscionable. While there is yet no cure for the virus, various treatments are in use and research to find better treatment continues. The sooner people know they have the virus, the better their chances of dealing with it.

Not only do the 300,000 need to be immediately notified, but an education campaign for health-care providers and the general public needs to take place to reach the others who have the virus and don't know it. U.S. health officials estimate that 4 million Americans have hepatitis C and 1 million of those are unaware they have it.

Intravenous drug users make up the vast majority of hepatitis C victims. About 30,000 new cases appear each year and approximately 10,000 die each year from the virus.

Satcher says the government plans to make the educational campaign a priority. The campaign will also encourage testing for the serious liver infection, which was not identified until 1988. Unfortunately, not much is known about hepatitis C. According to the Utah health department, it may take anywhere from one year to 30 or 40 for symptoms to be manifest.

But whether a person has a mild case of hepatitis C or a much more serious one, the earlier it's detected the sooner it can be dealt with. Which is why the government needs to stop talking and start notifying.