Drug abuse spread this disease in Eastern Kentucky. Can $15 million ‘eradicate’ it?

The University of Kentucky has received a $15 million federal grant — and $50 million in donated drug treatments — aimed at ridding Perry County of Hepatitis C, a virus that causes liver cancer and has spiked in rural communities wracked by drug addiction.

“Our goal is to eradicate Hep C in Perry County,” said Jennifer Havens, the lead researcher on the project at the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research. She has long warned about the potential for Hep C and HIV outbreaks in Eastern Kentucky due to an increase in the abuse of injected drugs.

The project’s goal is greatly helped by a donation of 900 doses of a 12-week treatment that can cure Hepatitis C by Gilead Sciences Inc., valued at about $50 million.

The Kentucky Viral Hepatitis Treatment Project is funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s aimed at increasing access to Hepatitis C treatment in rural communities by removing barriers to care, such as cost, specialists and drug use.

Thanks to her ongoing work in Perry County, Havens has already identified nearly all of the 900 Hep C positive patients in the county. She estimates at least half of them have current or past history of opioid use disorder, a major cause of Hep C infection.

In the past decade, researchers have developed drugs that cure Hep C, but they are extremely expensive.

Another barrier, Havens said, is the stigma of the disease and the drug use which often causes it, which may prevent people from seeking help.

The $15 million will include more support for the county’s needle exchange program, and access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder through a local treatment center, Behavioral Health Group. The grant will also pay for case management, such as help with housing or unemployment.

Jennifer Havens, UK researcher Photos submitted to the Herald-Leader

“At the end of this study we hope to build a model for rural Hep C treatment that can be used around the country,” Havens said.

Havens announced the grant at a day-long retreat of the UK Board of Trustees, which devoted the day solely to the topic of opioid drug abuse. The board discussed numerous research projects at UK, including those looking at best practices for treatment, opioid use disorder in pregnancy, and better training on the topic for medical students.

UK President Eli Capilouto said he chose the topic so that trustees could see how the university is trying to solve one of Kentucky’s biggest problems.

“We’re trying to serve the commonwealth, but it cannot be its best self if this scourge persists,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to work with our partners to find out what works best.”

Capilouto said he wanted to show trustees what the university’s priorities are in seeking research funding, as well as what funding is needed to keep some of the top researchers on the topic at the university.

“The best experts in the country are right here at Kentucky,” he said. “They’re also prime targets for other states that want to recruit their talent.”

Kentucky has some of the highest rates in the country for opioid overdose deaths.

In 2017, 1,565 people died from drug overdoses, an 11.5 percent increase from the year before.

In the past year, Kentucky has placed about 200 children a month in foster care because of their parents’ substance abuse, said Natalie Kelly, of the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.