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By Taylor Knopf
North Carolina organizations providing harm reduction education and services can now apply for grants ranging from $25,000 to $150,000 with the national Harm Reduction Coalition through the end of July.
As infection rates for hepatitis C continue to rise across the nation largely due to injection drug use, the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences — a major producer of hepatitis C treatment drugs — gave the Harm Reduction Coalition about $11 million to be doled out in grants to five Appalachian states with some of the highest infection rates.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an estimated 2.4 million people living with hepatitis C in the United States in 2016.
For many of those, the virus remains latent in their bodies for years, slowly doing damage with few symptoms. But for others, the infection can become acute with symptoms ranging from dark colored urine, flu-like symptoms, and fatigue and can result in liver damage or liver failure. The CDC reports the number of acute hepatitis C cases increased about three and a half-fold from 2010 to 2016.
There are an estimated 110,000 North Carolinians with hepatitis C, and the majority don’t know it, according to state health officials.
In 2017, the number of acute hepatitis C cases diagnosed in North Carolina was 186 (rate of 1.8 per 100,000 people), which is a decrease from the 201 cases diagnosed in 2016 (rate of 2.0 per 100,000 people), according to the latest North Carolina HIV/STD/Hepatitis Surveillance Report.
Gilead launched its HepConnect initiative, a five-year, multi-million-dollar program to stop the spread of hepatitis C infection, with events throughout June in its first five focus states.
“We know we couldn’t solve the problem everywhere, so we prioritized based on data. Five states — Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina — were selected in the greater appalachia region, where there was a rising tide of hepatitis C infections caused by injection drugs,” said Arun Skaria, director of corporate contributions at Gilead Sciences.
He said Gilead hopes to expand the program to more states in the future. The company is letting applicants dictate the needs in their communities, and the grant money can go toward any work in the “harm reduction sphere,” he said.
Harm reduction strategies aim to lessen the damage caused to a person by their use of drugs. HIV and hepatitis C are bloodborne infections that can be spread through sharing injection equipment. By offering drug users clean needles and supplies, it reduces the risk of disease spread.
“We are working through partnerships and trying to be a catalyst for the work that’s already happening,” Skaria said.
HepConnect is in addition to Gilead’s FOCUS (Frontlines of Communities in the United States) grant program, which gives providers the ability to screen for hepatitis C and begin testing to link patients to treatment.
Providers, such as Marianna Daly, who is the Madison County health director and a primary care doctor at Hot Springs Health Program in western N.C., have been using FOCUS grant money to screen uninsured patients.
Daly is also part of the growing Carolina Hepatitis Academic Mentorship Program (CHAMP), which provides physicians with telemedicine training to better treat hepatitis C in their communities.
To date, there have been six CHAMP “boot camp” training sessions for providers interested in learning more about treating hepatitis C, according to Heidi Swygard, a UNC medical professor and the viral hepatitis medical director with the state Department of Health and Human Services.
CHAMP subject experts at the state Division of Public Health, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University have trained 185 North Carolina providers, and about 50 of those were in the state Department of Correction, Swygard said. About 11,000 patients have been screened through CHAMP.
Swygard said the program is taking the telemedicine training a step further and educating providers on medication assisted treatment in hopes to reduce the stigma around providing treatment for people with addiction.