A summit on hepatitis C kicked off Tuesday morning with strong support from New York officials for the goal of eliminating the virus, as new cases rise among young adults who are injection drug users.
"Together, we will eliminate hepatitis C," state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said to dozens of government officials, health workers and activists assembled in a meeting room at the Empire State Plaza. "We have the technology, we have the expertise and we have the will to do it."
Patient advocates are urging state officials to address hepatitis C, a virus that affects the liver, similarly to the way they have targeted AIDS with the "End the Epidemic" campaign that aims to bring the number of new cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to 750 per year by 2020.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that can cause chronic infection of the liver and, in the worst cases, liver failure and death. An estimated 200,000 New Yorkers have chronic hepatitis C, with as many as half unaware they carry the virus, according to patient advocate VOCAL-NY. There were more than 16,000 reported new cases in 2014.
Baby boomers, age 53 to 71, are the most likely to have hepatitis C, but prevalence of the virus is growing among those age 20 to 40 amid an epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse. Increased rates of hepatitis C have also been seen among women and in the suburbs, consistent with populations affected in recent years by the opioid abuse epidemic.
Along with the increased rates of illness, several speakers pointed to it being the right time to combat the virus, as drugs that cure hepatitis C have been brought to market in recent years.
But drugs that eliminate the virus can cost close to $100,000 for treatments lasting up to 12 weeks. Last year, it cost about $700 million for testing and medical services for New Yorkers with hepatitis C covered by Medicaid.
Jeremy Saunders, co-director of Brooklyn-based VOCAL-NY, acknowledged that funding will be the challenge in accomplishing the group's goals.
"What we're seeing is growing political will," Saunders said of Tuesday's inaugural summit. "There will be a need for money to put behind it and policy as well."
Zucker spoke Tuesday morning of hepatitis C priorities that echo the state's strategy against AIDS: enhancing prevention among high-risk groups, expanding screening tests and increasing access to affordable treatment for those who test positive. Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez, commissioner of the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, said hepatitis C treatment is part of care at the state's addiction treatment centers, where 11 percent of patients were found to have the virus last year.
These were also among the key goals of the summit's steering committee, which included hospitals, universities, health departments, and community-based organizations.
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