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Maine Working to Combat Spike in Hepatitis C Cases

Maine's hepatitis C rate is 60% higher than the national average.

The dangerous disease can result in potentially severe and permanent liver damage.

Its spike is tied to injectable drug use, which is why Maine's Centers for Disease Control and the state's director of opioid response, Gordon Smith, have announced that $1.5 million will be put towards needle exchanges.

Smith says the seemingly pricey idea will save taxpayers lots of money compared to footing the bill for hepatitis C care.

"The cost of treating hepatitis C and the liver disease that comes with it is astronomical," said Smith.

So far in 2019, Maine has had 51 cases of diagnosed hepatitis C, which already exceeds the state's 2018 total of 39 cases.

Both the CDC and Smith, who represent Gov. Janet Mills' administration, believe that expanding the hours and services of existing needle exchanges and potentially opening new ones will help bring the number of those cases down, with the ultimate goal of matching Maine's total cases with the national average.

"You need something in York County, Androscoggin County, in the western part of the state, in the north," said Smith. "If you have a fixed site, you could have a van that could go to more remote locations."

At Portland's city-run needle exchange, specialist Zoe Brokos expects her clinic could offer more services on weekends with additional money.

She also says people travel long distances to get help in Portland. Those people could get not just treatment for hepatitis C, but further recovery care and education, if they did not live far away from the exchange.

"I had a whole group of people who came down from the Hollis area and they believed alcohol would kill hepatitis C, so they were cleaning their needles with alcohol, and they all tested positive for Hep-C," said Brokos. "With this increase in funding for new programs, it's really going to make an impact in those areas."

An exact timeline for applying the funds is not available yet.

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