Since the 1970s, when needles were reused during a campaign to combat the illness of bilharzia, Egypt has often recorded the highest infection rates of hepatitis C. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 3 percent of the world’s population is infected with the virus, but whereas rates in many countries are as low as 0.1 percent of the population, in Egypt the incidence is as high as 18.1 percent.
IRIN notes the effects of this high rate, reporting on the hundreds of thousands who suffer from liver cancer, which has hepatitis C as one of its main causes. Where 4 percent of Egypt’s population died from liver cancer in 1993, this figure rose to 11 percent in 2009. Studies say that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Egyptians could die from the disease over the next few years. The government already allocates around 40 per cent of its 263 million dollar health subsidies to combating liver disease, but more resources are still needed.
It is not only hepatitis C which causes the problem. A professor at Egypt’s National Cancer Institute has said that food contamination is also a major cause of liver cancer. Storage methods for grain are not controlled and there is a general lack of awareness about food hygiene and contamination dangers.
Egypt’s population has doubled in size in just 30 years, from 44 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2009. In that time, average life expectancy has risen from 52 years in 1960 to 72 years today. Whilst hospitals are free to enter, many treatments still require money which the poorest are unable to afford. And with a general lack of reading, it is hard to raise awareness of healthcare issues. So for example in one study about the public awareness of AIDS conducted in 2008, less than 2% of women among the poorest fifth of society knew the basic facts about the disease. Education in the country is improving, with adult literacy running at around 72% of the population today and expected to reach 90% within the next generation. But a government-commissioned study showed that poverty still endures because many people lack the necessary education and basic skills to improve their lives.
So despite Egypt’s rapid economic growth, a recent report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that the number of children living in poverty is actually on the increase. The report estimated that 23% of children under 15 were living on less than one dollar a day and around five million children were living in inadequate housing, without proper shelter, water and sanitation. Around 1.6 million under fives were estimated to experience some kind of health or food deprivation.
With all the many health and development issues to tackle in Egypt, the UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa believes that education will provide the key to fighting poverty in the long term.