The viral infection hepatitis C is a major public health problem that can lead to liver disease, liver cancer, and death. Roughly one in 1,000 Virginians was diagnosed with the disease in 2020, the most recent data available.

But the Virginia Department of Health expects that number is an undercount because there was a significant drop in testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report notes that while an estimated 2 million people in the United States have hepatitis C, four in 10 are unaware of their condition.

Through a CDC grant in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health, researchers in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC will implement routine surveillance and laboratory testing of hepatitis C in high-impact settings and provide genomic sequencing of viral hepatitis samples provided by the commonwealth. They will upload data and report sequencing results with a rapid turnaround in order to give state health workers a quick understanding of the severity and transmissibility of the virus.

“We need to harness all of our resources to combat the menace of hepatitis C,” said Carla Finkielstein, scientific director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory and professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Finkielstein brings valuable experience to the task. When the pandemic emerged, she led Virginia Tech scientists in developing a testing method that made it possible to rapidly and accurately provide results and identify the region’s variants of the COVID-19 virus to local health departments. 

“By working with the dedicated professionals at the health department and combining our expertise and resources, we can comprehensively address the challenges posed by hepatitis C in our region,” said Finkielstein, who is also a biology professor with Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

The CDC lists three main challenges that prevent people from getting lifesaving care: the cost of treatment, restrictive insurance coverage, and challenges in diagnosis.

“The primary goal of our partnership is to support the health department in its efforts to more effectively detect hepatitis C, interrupt outbreaks, and control transmission clusters to improve public health outcomes and enhance the well-being of our community,” Finkielstein said.

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