Mar 14, 2017, 2:40pm EDT  |  Jennifer Henderson

At a time when cases of hepatitis C are on the rise in North Carolina due to the ongoing opioid epidemic, Triangle-based physicians and state officials have partnered on a new mentorship program to combat the liver disease.

The UNC School of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center and the N.C. Division of Public Health launched the Carolina Hepatitis Academic Mentorship Program (CHAMP) earlier this year. The program is currently providing “telementoring” services to roughly 30 primary care providers in the state, according to Dr. Michael Fried, professor of medicine and director of the UNC Liver Center.

While hepatitis C is “not easy to contract,” says Fried, an increase in heroin use that is part of the opioid epidemic (i.e., sharing needles for injection) has largely contributed to the rise in cases in North Carolina. The disease – which requires direct blood contact for transmission – is curable, but often asymptomatic until 20 or 30 years after infection, he says, when severe complications can present.

Such factors make proper screening and treatment particularly important. Currently, baby boomers, as well as patients who received blood transfusions prior to 1992, are being recommended for screening, says Fried, even if individuals in these groups don’t have other risk factors.

Fried says he will work with Dr. Andrew Muir, professor of medicine and chief of the Duke Division of Gastroenterology, and Dr. Jama Darling, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of GI and Hepatology at UNC, by volunteering their services for the partnership. They each host two webcasts per month with different sets of providers and are available for follow-up questions or discussions as well.

“Working with the Department of Health and Human Services, we put together this collaboration to provide mentorship to interested primary care physicians and nurse practitioners who want to treat hepatitis C …” he says. The Division of Public Health approached the physicians from UNC and Duke about a partnership, he says, adding, for his part, it builds on a previous mentoring partnership with the the Rural Health Group in Roanoke Rapids.

Telementoring sessions through the new partnership involve reviewing cases, treatment suggestions and identifying certain advanced patients in need of specialized care, according to Fried.

He says the partnership expects to see initial cure rate results in roughly three to four months, adding the treatment course for hepatitis C is three months, with monitoring three months after that point to make sure a patient is still clear of the disease.

Because hepatitis C is curable, “we expect to have a major impact on the long-term public health of North Carolina,” says Fried.