DPH Partners with Imagine Hope to Combat Hepatitis C and Substance Abuse

May 11, 2015

May is Hepatitis Awareness Month and May 19 is Hepatitis Testing Day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person infected with Hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected.

Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the U.S., with approximately 3 million persons living with current infection, according to CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released on May 8.

Of those infected with Hepatitis C, 50 to 75 percent do not know that they have the disease. In 2013, there were nearly 30,000 new Hepatitis C infections in the U.S. – an increase of 151 percent from 2010 to 2013. The majority of these new infections were in young adults ages 20-29. This rise in new Hepatitis C infections is primarily in rural areas across the country.

Georgia has also experienced an increase of new hepatitis C infections among young adults in rural areas of the state. From 2010 to 2013, Georgia saw a 102 percent increase in hepatitis C infections in persons 30 years old and under, as reported to the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). This emergence of new hepatitis C infections can be attributed to a rise in injection drug use in young adults.

DPH’s Viral Hepatitis Prevention Program has prioritized prevention efforts to address the alarming rates of Hepatitis C infections among young adults and injection drug users. DPH is engaging and collaborating with key community stakeholders to reach this high-risk population.

DPH has partnered with Imagine Hope to address Hepatitis C statewide. Imagine Hope provides project management, training, and technical assistance for HIV counseling and testing services to a statewide network of nurses and counselors in substance abuse treatment centers, on behalf of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) Office of Addictive Diseases.

“Through our partnership, DPH has offered guidance and technical assistance to Imagine Hope for almost four years,” said Lynne Mercedes, Hepatitis Program director at DPH. “Our collaborative efforts will hopefully integrate Hepatitis C testing in substance abuse treatment centers across the state.” 

In March, Imagine Hope launched a Hepatitis C testing initiative through the Gilead FOCUS Program in five metro Atlanta agencies: two traditional abstinence-based substance abuse centers, a drop-in center for people in long-term recovery, a methadone clinic and an outreach organization that targets youth on college campuses.

“DPH staff assisted in training nurses and counselors involved in this initiative on the basics of Hepatitis C and reporting requirements,” said Mercedes. “We also connected Imagine Hope with providers that would eventually refer patients for additional follow-up.”

Imagine Hope’s goal is to screen 2,050 people with a rapid Hepatitis C antibody test by the end of February 2016. They will also conduct 200 confirmatory tests at the methadone clinic, because of the high infection rate in people who have injected drugs. They estimate that they will identify 315 infections.

“Among the first 58 people who were tested for Hepatitis C, we were surprised to find that 31 percent of them tested positive,” said Marie Sutton, founder and CEO of Imagine Hope. “Based on the ratio of positive clients identified in the first 30 days, Imagine Hope anticipates finding many more Hepatitis C positive patients.”

There are free resources to learn more about Hepatitis Awareness Month, screening, and your potential risk by visiting the CDC online or viewing www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis.

To learn more about the National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan and what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is doing about viral hepatitis, you can visit www.AIDS.gov/hepatitis

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