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It’s Time We Got Serious About Hep C

One of the terrible consequences of Tennessee’s opioid crisis is the rise in hepatitis C infections.

Approximately 70,000 of our fellow Tennesseans are infected with the hepatitis C virus. Tragically, nearly half don’t even know they’re infected.

Between 2006 and 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there was an astonishing 364% jump in hepatitis C infections throughout central Appalachia, including Tennessee. Until recently, hepatitis C disproportionately affected baby boomers, but due to the nation’s opioid crisis, emerging health threats like hepatitis C have extended their reach to a broader population.

Many of the newly infected live in rural communities, are under the age of thirty and have been dealing with the effects of opioid use.

Those infected with hepatitis C can live many years before they know their status or begin to show symptoms. The medical community calls hepatitis C a “silent killer” because, if left untreated, it can eventually lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer or death.

Hepatitis C is harmful not only to public health, but also to our economic well-being. Tennessee’s opioid crisis is estimated to cost over $14 billion annually, which includes the cost of addressing related health challenges like hepatitis C.

But hepatitis C doesn’t have to have such a devastating effect on our state. We know it’s possible to reduce the spread of hepatitis C and to treat those already infected. Our task is to get assistance to the places and communities where it’s needed most.

Just this year, Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration added $24.7 million to the state budget to treat inmates within our state prison system. With an estimated 6,000 prisoners infected with hepatitis C, this was an important but overdue step toward addressing an epidemic.

But we’ll need to do much more. We need to focus on raising awareness, preventing new infections, and providing care to those in need.

I am helping launch a new program called HepConnect, which will work to strengthen Tennessee’s efforts to address hepatitis C. I’m pleased that this new initiative, alongside other public and private sector efforts, will work to bolster our statewide response and to aid those already on the front lines of this fight.

This initiative will support local community efforts to bring needed public and medical attention to this problem. The good news is that if we can scale up testing and screening programs to get to Tennesseans before they become infected, we can stop hepatitis C before it spreads even further.

To succeed in this fight, it will be critical to broaden awareness in affected communities and implement evidence-based harm reduction services such as medication assisted treatment, syringe exchange programs and prevention strategies tailored for those infected or at risk.

We must also expand access to screening and link people to the best available care. That will require confronting head-on major obstacles to treatment. We cannot allow lack of insurance, an insufficient number of local providers or the geographic and transportation limitations of Tennesseans to impede the work essential to combat this public health threat.

To meaningfully address the opioid crisis and bring diseases like hepatitis C under control, we must ensure our state, medical and community health efforts work together. It’s clear that programs like HepConnect can help make a real difference.

If we are willing to do what is required, I know we can stop hepatitis C in its tracks.

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