In the coming weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to start injecting a hepatitis C vaccine into people who have been exposed to a drug-resistant strain of the virus.
The move is being made to secure its supply and allow patients with weak immune systems the opportunity to receive shots while they are still healthy.
The agency intends to invest $8.6 billion to help set up its own vaccine manufacturing plant and to stockpile plenty of the vaccine to protect hospitals and clinics.
“Hepatitis C is one of the deadliest communicable diseases in our country and even though it’s been brought under control in virtually every community, that’s not to say we can’t do more to combat it,” Christy Goldfuss, the deputy assistant to the president for health, said in a briefing on Monday.
“We can’t have any deaths from that disease in this country.”
The CDC expects the program to save about 26,000 lives and prevent 2 million doses of vaccine from being discarded or sold. The grant program will also include plans to expand research of newer vaccines, increase national testing and scale up pilot programs for blood safety systems.
The boost to federal efforts to combat the virus came as health officials announced the highest levels of hepatitis C infection in 15 years. Nationwide, the number of people infected with the virus in 2017 was 1.1 million.
This outbreak is concentrated in a handful of U.S. states and is largely driven by the number of people who are having sex with each other and sharing needles.
The number of people living with a chronic hepatitis C infection has more than doubled since 2005. Still, the CDC has been helping states to prepare for the increase in cases. And many parts of the U.S. have reported fewer cases than in the past.
Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania accounted for about 60 percent of the current figures, according to the CDC. Florida, Minnesota and New York were among the other states with high numbers.
Linda Brewer, the chief of health protection for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said her state is on a path to meeting national targets for decreasing the rate of infection.
“We’re making steady gains and it’s because of hepatitis C vaccination,” Brewer said.
Vaccination for hepatitis C has been widely successful at preventing the number of infections. That’s mostly because people who have been exposed to drugs are treated with anti-viral drugs. This allows them to undergo chemotherapy and sometimes receive dialysis, giving them a break from the virus and reducing the risk of further infection.
The CDC’s work to stockpile the vaccine and distribute it around the country comes ahead of the annual Congressional appropriations process. Goldfuss said the Trump administration would push for funding for other initiatives, such as a food safety plan and efforts to promote the movement of people to renewable energy sources.
“Our job is to set priorities in favor of meeting the needs of the American people,” Goldfuss said.