Egypt gains ground in fight against hepatitis C

Friday 21/08/2015
Egyptian health officials taking requests for free treatment for hepatitis C in Cairo.

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.