A new statewide initiative will address the rise in hepatitis C cases in North Carolina. The state Department of Health and Human Services says there are over 100,000 North Carolinians living with the virus; the nation has seen an uptick as a result of the opioid crisis.

HepConnect launched in Raleigh Thursday. WFDD's Bethany Chafin spoke with Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, one of the initiative's partners, about the virus and how it can be prevented and treated.

Interview Highlights

On more information regarding hepatitis C:

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes liver damage. Like other viruses it can be transmitted a few ways. Most commonly in the United States we've seen people get hepatitis C through sharing syringes or other equipment used to inject drugs outside of medical settings. Some people in the past have also gotten it through blood transfusions before we screened the blood supply, but basically hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and so blood from somebody who has hepatitis C needs to get into somebody else's body in order for transmission to occur. Hepatitis C doesn't immediately cause sickness, and it can take decades for liver damage to occur. Some people seem to have a relatively mild time with it, and for other people it can cause liver cancer, liver failure, or even death.

On the HepConnect initiative:

HepConnect is a new initiative launched by Gilead Sciences. They've partnered with us for the harm reduction component which is specifically to designed to reach out to programs that are connecting with people who inject drugs at risk of hepatitis C and support them in building their capacity to prevent it. What that means on the ground is that we're going to do a couple of things. We are going to be making grants to harm reduction programs that are working on hepatitis C prevention strategies for people who inject drugs. We're also going to provide technical assistance to those and other programs so that they have the tools, the best practices, the strategies that we know would be most effective. We think that our best chance of preventing hepatitis C in this population is a combination of scaling up syringe exchange programs, increasing people's access to medication to treat opioid use disorder — so medications like buprenorphine, like methadone — and then simultaneously making sure that people who do have hepatitis C are diagnosed and treated and cured.

On treatment for hepatitis C: 

Treatment for hepatitis C has really been revolutionized over the last few years. Today in 2019, if you find out that you have hepatitis C and want to get treated, you're probably looking at taking pills for three months with a 90 percent success rate and very few side effects. So, it's very streamlined, it's very short term, it's very tolerable, and it's got a high rate of success.

On how North Carolina was chosen for the initiative:

When we look at the broader patterns around the opiate overdose crisis, we know that the greater Appalachia region has been hit especially hard. So, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, these are all states that have been hard hit. But they're also states where we've seen a lot of promising responses. We've seen communities mobilized to take action against overdose. We've seen syringe exchange programs start up to address hepatitis C and HIV. And so, there's a foundation there. So we want to build on the great work that's already happening recognizing that these states have a particularly high burden.

On benchmarks for the initiative:

Our ultimate goal across five years is really to lay down an infrastructure to prove that these states can reverse the transmission of hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. That's something that's really important to demonstrate and lay the foundation for, because ultimately, we want to eliminate hepatitis C in these five states and across the country and across the world. That's achievable. We've got cures, we've got prevention strategies, but we've got to show that we can put them in place, that people will use these strategies, access health care, and make it work. So, I think that this is a real demonstration for North Carolina and for the whole country that if you invest resources and support in smart targeted ways that you really can stem the transmission of hepatitis C.


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