Egypt to test street children for hepatitis C
Cairo - Egypt plans to test thousands of children for hepatitis C, a disease that has become a nationwide affliction, to help limit the spread of the disease among street children.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the blood-borne virus, which is highly infectious, kills an estimated 40,000 Egyptians every year. It adds that at least 10% of Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 59 are infected.
“Thousands of medical practitioners and experts will be on the streets as of next month,” said Dr Mosaad Radwan, an adviser to the Minister of Social Solidarity, which will launch the testing campaign in cooperation with the Health Ministry. “These medical practitioners and experts will go wherever they can to find the children and test them.”
About 23,000 children live on the streets in Egypt, according to Radwan. Egypt’s non-governmental organisations say the number is many times larger. The children are runaways, orphans or young people abandoned by their families.
The alarm was sounded a few months ago when a charity offering care to street children discovered that some of them tested positive for hepatitis C.
Rights activists note that Egypt’s street children lead unhealthy and often dangerous lives that leave them deprived of basic needs for protection, guidance and supervision and expose them to exploitation and abuse.
“Street children can even have more than just hepatitis C,” said Mahmoud al-Badawi, the head of local Egyptian Association for the Assistance of Juveniles and Human Rights. “Life on the streets is synonymous with all types of violations and diseases.”
There are no recent studies to corroborate Badawi’s view but WHO research shows that Egypt’s street children suffer health problems that include cholera, tuberculosis and anaemia. They are also exposed to a variety of toxic substances, both in food and the environment around them.
A study published in 2010 by AIDS, the official journal of the International AIDS Society, said street children were highly vulnerable to many adverse health and social problems. The study, involving 857 street children, determined that 35% of them reported alcohol consumption.
The vast majority of children (93%) faced some form of violence or abuse on the street, according to the study.
It said the most typical forms of abuse were harassment by police (63%) and by older street children (51%). Physical abuse and violence were reported by 45% of children and sexual abuse by 12%, the study said.
It added that harassment and physical abuse tended to be more prevalent among boys, whereas sexual abuse was many times more common among girls. More than 53% of female street children aged 15-17 years in Greater Cairo and 90% of those in Alexandria had been a victim of sexual abuse, the study found.
The majority, the study said, also reported having used drugs and, among the older teens, having sex, noting that among those having sex, most never used a condom and had multiple sex partners.
A few years ago, reports that some street children earned a living by selling their blood to private hospitals sent shockwaves across Egypt.
Samir Ahmed, a 14-year-old, has been living on the streets for three years now, but does not sell his blood to eat.
“I only ask people to give me money and some people do,” said Ahmed, who sleeps in a downtown Cairo underground station.
Wafer-thin and wearing dirty clothes, Ahmed held a cigarette between the middle and index fingers of his right hand. He said he sometimes found food in rubbish baskets. He refused to answer questions about whether he took drugs or had been sexually abused.
Badawi said he hopes that hepatitis C campaign will lead to more efforts to keep children from having to sleep on the streets.
“The government needs to have a real will to either send these children back home or include them in the programmes of this country’s social institutions,” he said. “We cannot keep talking while more and more children end up leaving their family homes and living on the streets.”