Anti-hepatitis campaign tackles health crisis in Egypt

With more than 15% of the population of 100 million suffering from hepatitis C, Egypt had the world’s highest prevalence rate of the disease.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Egyptian doctors make a test during a campaign that aims to test 50 million people to detect and treat hepatitis C patients in Cairo. (Reuters)
Saving lives. Egyptian doctors make a test during a campaign that aims to test 50 million people to detect and treat hepatitis C patients in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt is preparing to complete its largest national health campaign for screening citizens for hepatitis C and a host of non-communicable diseases. The “100 Million Healthy Lives” campaign started in October 2018 and ends in December.

The campaign, the first of its kind in Egypt, was designed to screen everyone living in the country, including millions of foreign refugees, for hepatitis C and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure and obesity. Those testing positive, especially for hepatitis C, are referred to specialised hospitals and clinics for further examinations and treatment.

The screening, examinations and treatment are all done for free as Egypt is investing a huge amount from donations by foreign governments and international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Hepatitis C was a national plague in our country before the start of the campaign,” said Dr Wahid Doss, the head of the National Committee for Control of Viral Hepatitis, the Ministry of Health agency planning strategies to eradicate liver viruses.

With more than 15% of the population of 100 million suffering from hepatitis C, Egypt had the world’s highest prevalence rate of the disease.

The epidemic took root in Egypt almost half a century ago when health authorities tried to eradicate schistosomiasis — snail fever — a disease caused by parasitic flatworms that was widespread among rural residents in the Nile Delta.

A national campaign against schistosomiasis included injections. Needles to administer drugs, however, were reused on a large number of patients, leading to the spread of the blood-borne hepatitis C epidemic.

When the anti-hepatitis C campaign started in October 2018, Egypt deployed an army of health professionals to screen citizens for the disease. Public hospitals and clinics opened their doors to administer hepatitis C tests. The Health Ministry set up clinics in Metro stations, public

squares, schools, state institutions, private firms, factories and farms.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in August, described the campaign as the “world’s largest” and said he expected Egypt to fulfil the hepatitis C eradication national goal ahead of schedule.

Hepatitis C prevalence in Egypt is now 4%, down from 15% when the campaign started. Egypt said it expects to get the rate to 2.2% by the end of 2019 and hopes to eradicate the disease by 2030.

Egypt has invested $250 million in the campaign and seems to be ready to invest additional funds to assure its success.

Since becoming Egypt’s president in 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has introduced a series of development projects and reformed the economy. The hepatitis C campaign is viewed as his most outstanding contribution because it invests in the health of the people and improves their quality of life.

The diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C had been daunting and costly for Egyptians. Some people were infected with the hepatitis C virus but did not know until they were diagnosed with liver failure or liver cancer. Others were aware of their medical condition but could not seek treatment because of the cost.

In 2014, Egyptian health authorities acquired a licence for the sale of revolutionary oral medicines for the disease from an American company. The medicines and later variations of them drove the disease recovery rate to 90%.

The anti-hepatitis C campaign uses the same medicines in the treatment of those who test positive to the disease.

Approximately 60 million people have been screened in the campaign. They included around 11 million school children and university students. Around 2 million of those screened tested positive for hepatitis C and are receiving treatment.

“This means that the campaign is saving the lives of these 2 million people,” said Manal Hamdy al-Sayed, a professor of paediatrics and a founding member of the National Committee for Control of Viral Hepatitis. “Those treated are an additional productive force that the national economy is badly in need for.”

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