UK gets $15 million grant to treat 900 drug users with hepatitis C in Hazard area to examine concept of ‘treatment as prevention’

Jennifer Havens

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The University of Kentucky has received a five year, $15 million grant along with a $50 million donation in drugs, to treat hepatitis C in Hazard and Perry County in order to examine the concept of “treatment as prevention.”

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by a virus that is primarily spread by injection drug users when they share needles or other equipment. Left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.

The Kentucky Viral Hepatitis Treatment Project, led by Jennifer Havens at the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, will provide treatment to 900 Perry County drug users who have hepatitis C. They have already been identified through Havens’ previous work in the county around drug addiction.

Havens told the UK Board of Trustees, at a day-long meeting devoted to the issues of opioid abuse, that it’s important to treat people who test positive for hepatitis C in drug-using networks as a way to prevent its transmission.

“Once they are cured, they are no longer transmitting,” she said Thursday. “So it makes a whole lot of sense to use this treatment-as-prevention approach. It lowers the community viral load.”

Havens said the project’s goal is to increase access to hepatitis C treatment in rural Appalachia by removing the barriers to care, such as cost, insurance restrictions and poor access to specialists.

The project will also cover the cost of substance-use disorder treatment for each of the participants and a case manager to help with any additional barriers to care, such as transportation. It will also cover the cost of the Perry County Health Department’s syringe exchange during the study period.

Havens said the treatment will reduce the future health-care burden in a region that already has such vast health disparities. Ultimately, she said she plans to use the evidence gathered from the research to build new models of hepatitis C care across the nation.

Funding for the project comes from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Also, Gilead Sciences Inc. will donate 900 doses of the costly hepatitis C anti-viral drug, valued at $50 million.

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