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$800K grant helping to investigate hepatitis C cases in Indiana

MADISON COUNTY, Ind. – As Indiana communities struggle with the various impacts of the current opioid crisis, county health departments are getting some help from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control.

A four-year, $800,000 grant from the CDC is paying for state health workers to investigate documented cases of hepatitis C. The disease is often spread through the sharing of needles among heroin users.

Investigating hepatitis C cases is important because it can identify needle-sharing partners of infected patients, according to Madison County Health Department Administrator Stephenie Grimes. But the investigations are also costly and time consuming.

“Having state assistance in tracking down partners and getting people tested as well as doing some of the interviews would definitely help,” Grimes said.

Madison County currently has the highest hepatitis C rate in the state. Grimes says her department documented 224 cases of hep-C in 2017. Most of those cases were identified while the county was still running its needle exchange program and testing 20 to 25 people each month. The Madison County Council voted to defund the exchange program in August last year. After that, the county only tested seven patients for hepatitis C, Grimes said.

“We can only assume that they’re sharing syringes at this point, or reusing them,” Grimes said. “So I don’t know what that’s going to do to our case rate.”

State Health Department spokesperson Greta Sanderson said 45 Indiana counties are participating in the Viral Hepatitis Enhanced Surveillance Grant, and another five counties are in the process of joining. Twelve more counties will join the program this spring, Sanderson said.

Grimes says she’ll take all the help she can get in pinpointing who is infected with hepatitis C and identifying who else could be at risk. Since the program started in November, state health workers have investigated 30 hepatitis C cases in Madison County, she said.

In the meantime, Madison County health officials are waiting to see if the needle exchange program could be restarted soon. Aspire Indiana Health, a private health care company, is in talks to take up the county’s exchange. The company’s board is expected to vote on the matter next month, Grimes said.

“I really feel like it’s a need and I hope that they see to take it,” she said.