HepConnect, a multimillion-dollar effort to fight hepatitis C, was introduced Thursday in Louisville with the help of Gov. Matt Bevin as well as medical professionals and health advocates.

The five-year initiative aims to tackle hepatitis C in Kentucky and the greater Appalachian region through various means, such as screenings, connecting people with medical care, supporting community partnerships and prevention programs, and strengthening the health care infrastructure.

“The power of this initiative will be around our joint efforts together and is designed to support local organizations that are already on the front lines of addressing hepatitis C,” said Derek Spencer, an executive director for government affairs for Gilead Sciences, the biopharmaceutical company funding the initiative.

There also will be efforts to “explore new opportunities to effectively address hepatitis C,” he said.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection, which is spread through contaminated blood, and affects an estimated 2.4 million Americans, many of whom don’t know it because the illness is often asymptomatic, Spencer said.

Because the state only tracks acute cases, it doesn’t have a full picture of how many people are affected by hepatitis C but estimates that more than 40,000 Kentuckians have it. “The actual number is likely four to five times that amount,” according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Research has shown an association between an increase in acute cases of hepatitis C and increased injection of opioids in the United States in recent years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“New HCV (hepatitis C) infections have soared in regions impacted by the opioid crisis,” Spencer said. “The majority of new HCV infections in the Appalachian region are attributed to the results of syringe-sharing practices and other equipment associated with injecting drugs.”

Other ways of acquiring the virus include sharing personal items, such as razors and toothbrushes; getting a tattoo or body piercing in an unregulated setting; or even sometimes through sexual activity, according to the CDC. The illness may be short-term (acute) or it can become chronic.

Before 1992, hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants but widespread screening of the U.S. blood supply has mostly eliminated that, according to the CDC.

HepConnect is designed to keep people in five states — Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — from suffering the sometimes-dire consequences of being infected with the hepatitis C virus.

If the illness goes undetected, it “can progress to liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer and death,” Spencer said, noting that it can touch anyone, from sons and daughters to parents and grandparents.

Gov. Matt Bevin at the HepConnect announcement. | Photo by Darla Carter

Bevin said just a few years ago the illness was considered to be a baby boomer thing, but we’ve now seen it “leap into younger generations,” he said, adding, “We can’t afford to ignore it.”

“I would encourage everyone here … to band together and let’s look out the windshield,” he said at Thursday’s announcement. “Let’s figure out what we can do from this moment forward to just continue to address this the best way we can.”

Speakers at Thursday’s event talked about the need to lessen the stigma surrounding hepatitis C and drug use, and a panel of experts from the University of Louisville Hepatitis C Center and elsewhere spoke of the need to address not only the person injecting drugs but also family members who might be infected or impacted.

“Pregnant women can pass hepatitis C on to their babies,” said Barbra Cave, a nurse practitioner with UofL’s center.

More than $11 million will be pumped into the first year of the project, which is being led by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national organization that promotes the health and dignity of people and communities affected by drug use. The Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition helped to host Thursday’s event at the Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center.

CDC research published in 2015 and based on surveillance data from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia showed a substantial increase (364%) in the number of cases of acute hepatitis C infection from 2006 to 2012 among young people, mainly whites living in urban and non-urban areas.

“The statistics on HCV (hepatitis C) are alarming, and not enough people are paying attention,” Gregg Alton, chief patient officer for Gilead Sciences, said in a news release. “There is an urgent need to address the intersecting epidemics of HCV and the country’s opioid crisis. … HepConnect offers an opportunity for us to use our expertise and resources to support communities in need.”