Egypt gains ground in fight against hepatitis C
Cairo - Egypt, which had some of the highest rates of hepatitis C in the world, is making noticeable progress in the eradication of the infectious, blood-borne disease.
Where worldwide rates are 2-3%, Egypt had a 10% hepatitis C prevalence rate in 2008 but by 2015 has managed to bring the rate down to 4.4%, a major accomplishment applauded by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This year, the organisation selected Egypt as the site of its virus prevention campaign.
Hepatitis C is a disease that primarily affects the liver and can cause cirrhosis and liver failure or other diseases that can be fatal.
A series of measures by health authorities was credited with lowering the number of infections, health experts say.
“These measures include the launch of massive awareness and prevention campaigns across the country and also stemming the infection tide at its source, namely hospitals and clinics,” Dr Wahid Doss, the head of the state-run National Hepatitis C Committee, told The Arab Weekly.
Health authorities are applying new prevention measures at hospitals, including stressing sterilisation of medical equipment and the use of a new type of self-destructing syringes to force safer injection practices.
Hepatitis C is the story of a government effort to treat another disease, an effort that backfired, shattering the lives of tens of millions of Egyptians over the years.
The virus emerged in Egypt decades ago when the government applied measures to eradicate snail fever, a disease caused by Schistosoma parasitic worms, which infect the urinary tract and intestines.
To fight that health battle, medical practitioners reused glass syringes several times, unknowingly transmitting hepatitis C infection to hundreds of thousands of people, creating an endemic that continues in Egypt.
In May, Egyptian Health Minister Adel al-Adawi estimated that 15 million Egyptians – nearly 20% of the country’s population – were infected with hepatitis C.
Other estimates put the number of people killed by the blood-borne disease at 40,000 each year and new infections at 160,000. At least one in every ten Egyptians between the ages of 15 to 59 is infected, according to the WHO.
Part of the problem, according to Doss, is that hepatitis C symptoms can take a long time to show.
“Most virus sufferers do not know they are infected as they often do not have symptoms until they develop serious liver disease, which can be years later,” he said.
Doss’s committee prepared a nationwide prevention campaign against the virus at traditional hotspots, including barber’s shops, dentistry clinics and labs, tens of thousands scattered across the country.
Together with government-level efforts to bring down infection rates, the public-driven measures aim at achieving the government’s goal of eradicating hepatitis C in Egypt by 2018.
Some experts, however, cast doubt on Egypt’s ability to meet that target.
They say that, although the government is making intensive efforts to eradicate the virus and usher in necessary medicines, virus eradication will not be possible within ten years.
“You cannot eradicate a disease by merely focusing on treatment and neglecting prevention,” leading liver disease specialist Mohamed Afifi said. “Together with treating people carrying the virus already, you have to prevent other people from joining the long line of patients.”
Like-minded experts say despite the fact that health authorities try to spread awareness among medical practitioners and the general public, dentistry clinics and barbers’ shops continue to be main sources of infection.
Nevertheless, Egypt gained ground in its fight against hepatitis C in July when it reached an agreement to access new oral hepatitis C treatments that promise higher cure rates at significantly reduced cost.
This is less than a year after the treatments, which are less toxic and have fewer side effects than existing medications, were cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration for the US market.
Tens of thousands of hepatitis C sufferers are applying to receive the new treatments, which are available at drugstores across the country. The government is offering them for free for people who cannot pay.
Together with prevention campaigns, the availability of the oral treatments might explain the reduction in virus prevalence rates in recent months.
Some 193,000 people applied to receive the free oral treatments in recent months, according to Health spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar, who added that 90% of those people have already been treated.