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Rochester health care leader named to state hepatitis C task force

Oct 11, 2018

Rochester has a representative on a task force working on what Gov. Andrew Cuomo says is the state’s first strategy to eliminate hepatitis C.

Ashley Zuppelli of Trillium Health is on a state task force aimed at eliminating hepatitis C.
Credit Trillium Health

Cuomo named Trillium Health innovation director Ashley Zuppelli to the group Thursday. Zuppelli said the task force’s work is important.

“Hepatitis C is a really tough disease. It’s known as a silent disease, so once you’re infected, typically you don’t have a lot of symptoms,” Zupelli said. But after 20 to 30 years, she said, if the disease is undiagnosed or untreated, it can lead to liver disease. “It’s one of the leading causes of liver-related death,” Zupelli said.

And the rate of hepatitis C infection is increasing, both in Monroe County and across the state. Acute hepatitis C rates are up almost 70 percent in Monroe County in the last two years, according to state health department data.

That’s largely due to increased rates of intravenous drug usage, Zupelli said. Blood-to-blood contact through used needles in drug use and tattooing is one of the primary ways hepatitis C is transmitted.

But Zupelli said people who have never engaged (or won’t admit to engaging) in those behaviors can still be at risk. In Cuomo’s announcement of the task force, the governor said that “three out of four baby boomers are living with hepatitis C.”

Many of those people don’t know they have it, Zupelli said. The task force plans a multi-pronged approach: awareness, treatment and prevention.

New York is already the first state in the country to require health-care providers to test anybody born between 1945 and 1965 for hepatitis C. Now, Zupelli said, the task force will work to help people who test positive get treatment. “Hepatitis C is treatable,” Zupelli said. “The options have come a long way in the last five years.”

The other big push is needle exchanges. “We don’t have a lot of support around prevention of hepatitis C right now,” Zupelli said.

Zupelli said she knows needle exchange programs can be controversial, because they seek to reduce the harm of using drugs instead of eliminating drug use completely, but, she said, it’s one of the only realistic ways to address the spread of hepatitis C.

“There is stigma” related to clean needle programs, Zupelli said. “But I think one of our biggest goals in this taskforce is to eliminate that stigma.”