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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky is at the top of the charts, when it comes to the number of hepatitis C cases in the U.S.

But a new multi-million dollar, five-year initiative is aimed at reducing and preventing the virus. Gov. Matt Bevin helped announce the "HepConnect" plan Thursday morning. He says it's important to tackle the spread of the disease.

"At the end of the day, most of these people who are dying are dying of liver-related diseases and cancers that are the onset of this disease. We can't afford to ignore it," he said.

The virus is typically spread through sharing needles, which is why the initiative will focus on areas most affected by the opioid crisis. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows there are roughly 43,000 Kentuckians living with Hep C.

HepConnect will work with local departments and organizations to enact solutions in Kentucky and four other Appalachian states including Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Gilead Sciences sponsors HepConnect and is putting $11.3 million toward its first year across all five states. The research company's executive director of government affairs, Derek Spencer, said the effort will pay off. "It's wise enough to know that local change has to be facilitated by local stakeholders. When they win, Kentucky wins. We want Kentucky to win," he said.

Organizers say 2.4 million people in the U.S. are living with Hepatitis C (HCV) and half don't realize they have the virus. Left unchecked, the virus can lead to liver damage, liver disease and liver cancer.

The HepConnect initiative will improve health care and telemedicine, expand screenings and increase education about Hepatitis C.

To learn more, visit www.hepconnect.com 

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