Hundreds of patients have called a hospital helpline after being told they might have contracted a potentially fatal virus.

The phone line was set up when it emerged a healthcare worker at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, had hepatitis C.

The hospital wrote to 527 patients inviting them for a blood test and giving information about the condition.

So far, more than 230 people have responded with 200 agreeing to come in for a test.

Others have chosen to either go to their own GP or not be checked out at all because the risk of them being infected is small.

Hospital spokesman Ian Keeber said: "There have been a large number of calls with almost everyone staying calm.

"We are holding blood-testing sessions at the hospital for the next three days and people should be getting their results seven to ten days after their visit."

The healthcare worker, who previously worked at Sussex Nuffield Hospital, is based at the Royal Sussex County's trauma and orthopaedics department.

The Sussex Nuffield contacted 66 of its patients telling them about the potential risk of exposure.

The worker did not know they had the virus until they went for a routine blood test and immediately told hospital bosses when they found out.

The person concerned is receiving treatment and is able to continue working but is no longer carrying out procedures that could expose patients to the virus.

The letters have gone to patients treated by the healthcare worker between January 2000 and the beginning of this year.

Health bosses say the risk of a patient being infected is less than one per cent.

Hepatitis C has only been recognised since 1989 and it is only recently that tests to diagnose the virus have become available.

Doctors believe that transmission rates in the general population for hepatitis C are low. The incubation period is between two weeks and six months.

Hepatitis C is a virus which may cause inflammation of the liver. Most people who are infected do not realise they have the infection and suffer no symptoms at all.

Some can become carriers of the virus and have an increased lifetime risk of liver disease.

This is why it is important for doctors to test the blood of patients who may be at risk of having become infected. They can then be given treatment early to reduce the chance of disease later in life.