Egypt has stepped up efforts to curb the hepatitis C virus (HCV) by opening treatment centres, offering free drugs to the poor, and launching a massive public awareness campaign, say officials.
“We managed to dedicate more money for the treatment of the virus this year,” said Waheed Doss, chairman of the National Anti-Virus C Campaign, a state-run effort to fight the disease. “We managed to give free treatment to 140,000 patients last year alone,” he told IRIN.
Egypt has a very high prevalence of chronic diseases including liver infections, cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and it also has higher infection rates for invasive medical, dental, or paramedical procedures, the agency says, than neighbouring and many other countries with comparable socio-economic conditions and hygiene standards.
The prevalence of the infection is due in part to an earlier government campaign to fight schistosomiasis or bilharziasis - an infection of the urinary and intestinal tracts caused by blood flukes (tiny flatworms whose larvae are carried by snails living in stagnant water in the tropics).
From the late 1950s to the early 1980s teams went from village to village taking stool and urine samples. People infected with the worms were administered shots of tartar emetic. Up to 16 injections over three months were required to kill the parasites.
Nobody, however, knew that hepatitis C was lurking in the blood of some of these patients, and needles were rarely sterilized sufficiently to kill a virus like hepatitis C.
“What people need to know is that hepatitis C can lead to serious liver diseases,” said Hussein Al Ameen, a specialist at Assuit University. “The population infected decades ago has since spread the virus throughout our country.”
Egypt has allocated US$100 million for the treatment of hepatitis C this year, and a national HCV database has been created for the first time to enable health planners to develop policies for combating the virus.
Specialized liver disease centres have also been set up.
“The centres offer indispensable services to children carrying the virus,” said Manal Hamdy Al Sayed, another member of the National Anti-Virus C Campaign. “One of the things they do is to decide on the kind of treatment course the children should follow.”
It is estimated that three in every 1,000 children carry the virus. This indicates that the total number of children with hepatitis C in Egypt is 240,000, still only a fraction of the number of older Egyptians carrying the same virus.
Doss says 25 percent of people over 50, and 3 percent of those aged 15-30, have hepatitis C.
Government funding for the treatment of hepatitis C still falls short of national needs.
“The problem with this disease is that its treatment is very costly,” Assuit University’s Al Ameen said. “This means the government needs to spend more and more money if it wants to stop its high tide.”
Experts say a patient’s treatment costs up to $8,333 a year, but that a large number cannot pay for their treatment, meaning that the government has to pick up the tab.
“But let me say that money alone is not the only problem that will hinder our bid to bring HCV to an end in this country,” said Al Sayed of the National Anti-Virus C Campaign. “Our medical culture itself is also part of the problem.”
Tools used by dentists, barbers and medical lab staff across the nation are also seen to be factors behind the spread of HCV. Some barbers rarely sterilize their equipment, opening the way for infections on a massive scale.
*This article was amended on 24 August 2011, removing an erroneous reference to an HCV vaccination programne. This vaccine is only at the development stage.