ROCHESTER (WXXI) – New York is now home to the nation’s first strategy to eliminate hepatitis C, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor unveiled a $5-million program Friday that he said will expand access to clean syringes, increase funding for hepatitis C treatment, and remove barriers to insurance coverage for people getting that treatment.
Hepatitis C is a deadly disease affecting more than 200,000 New Yorkers, but it’s curable in 90 percent of cases, said Colleen Flanigan, director of hepatitis health care at the state health department.
Monroe County is a hotspot for the disease, with more reported cases than 75 percent of the state, according to the most recent health department data. That’s due in no small part to the virus’s spread through needles used to inject drugs.
With deaths from opioids tripling in the county over the last five years, state officials said it’s no surprise that hepatitis C is on the rise as well.
But the disease is curable in 90 percent of cases, if only health workers can detect it and get the patient to treatment.
Flanigan said that last step is not always easy.
“All of the syringe exchange programs in upstate New York offer free hepatitis C testing. But we know it’s very challenging to get individuals from that testing site linked to care,” Flanigan said. “And you can’t just simply say to someone, you’re hepatitis-C positive, you can go down the street and see a doctor.”
The governor’s new plan increases state funding for disease surveillance, which Flanigan said is sorely needed in counties like Monroe.
“Local health departments do not have the capacity to follow up on all the laboratory reports that come in. Local health departments are underfunded to be able to support active surveillance for Hepatitis C,” Flanigan said.
Active disease surveillance involves seeking out people with the disease and getting them to treatment, as well as limiting the spread of the disease in high-risk communities and determining how a person carrying the virus contracted it.
Monroe County health commissioner Michael Mendoza was not available to comment. Flanigan said the most important thing local health workers can do is “help people who use drugs gradually improve their situations in a realistic way.”