FAIRMONT – The Marion County Health Department is helping fight what’s often called the “Silent Disease” using grant funds from a five-state initiative aiming to end Hepatitis C.
“In 2017, there were 3,186 cases of acute Hepatitis C that were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Sandra Hassenpflug, director of nursing at the Marion County Health Department. “Many people have Hepatitis C and they don’t know, like 50 percent of people that have Hep C don’t know they have Hep C.”
The Health Department recently received $42,325 in grant funds that originated with the Harm Reduction Coalition and Gilead Sciences’ HepConnect Initiative that was announced in June at an event in Morgantown. West Virginia organizations were awarded a total of $929,000 to fight Hepatitis C and to conduct education on the disease, which is curable.
The grant money flowed to Marion County by way of the Milan Puskar Health Right, and the Monongalia County Health Department, which granted the money to the Marion County Health Department.
Blood-borne, Hepatitis C can be spread by needle sharing among those facing substance use disorder involving opioids, which have taken a toll on West Virginia.
“We saw the increase in Hepatitis C infections in Appalachia,” said Arun Skaria, director for corporate contributions at Gilead Sciences. “We developed the HepConnect initiative as an opportunity to work with local organizations who are working on the challenges, and for them to be part of the solutions.
“So our funding is really geared to catalize their work in preventing Hepatitis C in the region.”
Skaria said that one of the goals of Gilead is to educate people on the dangers of Hep C. He said the main group of people at risk of the disease, the generation of Baby Boomers, is no longer the main carrier of the virus, and it has infected many young people in recent years as well.
“What we’re really seeing is an epidemic that’s being caused because of drug use. That’s what’s really fueling what we call acute Hepatitis C, and that’s what we’re really seeing in parts of West Virginia,” Skaria said.
The first goal of the initiative is prevention education in West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina where organizations were awarded a total of $5.3 million in the HepConnect Initiative.
“These are states where people are experiencing Hep C at increased rates,” said Kacey Byczek, capacity building services manager east for the Harm Reduction Coalition. “The goal of HepConnect is to expand screening and linkage to care for Hepatitis C. We are trying to make sure people are getting tested and if they have Hepatitis C, they are being linked to care with doctors.”
Hassenpflug also said the Health Department is focused on prevention. She said that 20 percent of people who contract Hepatitis C can clear it without treatment, but for the other 80 percent, the virus can degrade the liver over a period of years if left unchecked.
Spreading the disease is an action the partners in the fight want to stop as well, but the spread is often linked to a number of other social problems that may plague an individual.
“There’s many different ways that you can get it into your bloodstream through bodily fluids,” Hassenpflug said. “Typically right now the most common way that it is spread is through injection of drugs, and the sharing of needles and syringes and equipment that’s used to inject drugs.”
Hassenpflug said that many who are infected go on to suffer from the disease for years.
“The thing we need to do is get people screened and tested,” she said. “Seventy-five to 85 percent of persons who become infected will develop the chronic infection then 10-15 percent will develop progressive liver fibrosis and cirrhosis over decades.”
HepConnect aims to provide screening and treatment for those who normally could not afford it.
“Support through these grants have been created to implement and expand services and medication-assistant treatment programs,” Byczek said. “Lots of folks may not be aware that Hepatitis C has a cure now. The cures are relatively new, but certainly have been developed in the last 10 years.”
These efforts to fight the disease are all aimed at reducing chances of getting the disease, but Skaria said that it could be possible to stop deaths attributed to Hepatitis C in the future, through the work of different organizations united in the fight against it.
“I think it’s going to take a lot of work from lots of partners,” Skaria said. “We want to make an impact to reducing it; our goal is reducing infection, and I think elimination is going to take a lot more resources and a lot more partnerships.”
Byczek also said there is still work to be done on the front of Hepatitis C treatment
“I would love to see it be a policy in every state that insurance has to cover Hepatitis C treatment for people regardless if they’re using drugs or not,” Byczek said. “I think the Harm Reduction Coalition would love to see a world in which doctors are obligated to treat people who have Hepatitis C, which is really easy to sure but also really easy to spread.”
The point of easy to treat, easy to spread is one Hassenpflug said deserves more attention, because it is better to treat it before it spreads on to further harm more individuals.
“It is curable, that’s a biggie,” Hassenpflug said. “It is curable with oral medications that are taken for two to six months, and these medications are better than they used to be and have less side effects.”