HUNTINGTON — A new network to support local health efforts to curtail the spread of hepatitis C, which has tripled in Appalachia alongside widespread intravenous drug use, has been established in West Virginia, fueled by an initial $11.3 million corporate grant by California-based Gilead Sciences.
Known as HepConnect, the five-year, multi-million-dollar project will be used to bolster existing harm reduction efforts at public health programs in West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina. The program will be administered by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national public health advocacy and support organization based in New York City.
Nearly 21,000 West Virginians are living with hepatitis C, and around 120 deaths were related to the disease in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called the rise of the bloodborne virus an epidemic. The disease has spread dramatically in the wake of Appalachia’s crushing opioid epidemic — chiefly through the sharing of used syringes to inject drugs and a new wave of homelessness.
HepConnect’s West Virginia efforts will be officially announced Wednesday in an event at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
The project has three main focus areas: expanding screenings and linking individuals to care, supporting harm reduction efforts and community education, and to expand existing health care infrastructure. HepConnect will bolster the means for local public health providers to do all three by providing national expertise and resources.
That could include funding expanded hours for clinics and employees, allowing for the hiring of new staff, adding outreach components and connecting with national experts, explained Daniel Raymond, deputy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, in a call Thursday.
But while urban coastal influences in Appalachia are usually met with a sense of suspicion by the native population, HepConnect isn’t a top-down approach to local public health, he continued.
Instead, the project is built around the idea that there’s already solid work being done with local health departments in the communities they serve, but that they could benefit financially and educationally from plugging into a larger network.
That means applying national resources and expertise as it works best in each individual community, and as public health and the communities they serve best see fit.
“Our hope is that, on the ground, it’ll look like more going into the good work that’s already going on in West Virginia and other states,” Raymond said.
“All the signals point to the need to find strategies that can be applied to the Appalachian region specifically — not just transfer something that may have been successful in the West Coast or East Coast regions.”
Gilead Sciences took an interest in Appalachia’s pressing health issues after company leaders stopped in Hazard, Kentucky, last year, witnessing the damage wrought by the opioid epidemic that’s become common in the region.
HepConnect is funded through Gilead’s corporate giving program, and the company will remain mostly hands-off beyond fueling the project, said Arun Skaria, Gilead Sciences’ director of corporate contributions.
“We just want to be that catalyst for [local public health] to continue the good work that they are already doing,” Skaria said on the phone Thursday.
More information can be found at www.hepconnect.com.