Egypt to test street children for hepatitis C

Friday 20/11/2015
A homeless Egyptian child sleeps under a bridge in Cairo, last March.

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.”