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Tackling hepatitis C in Egypt

Egypt has one of the highest infection rates of hepatitis C in the world. Whereas rates in most countries are as low as 0.1 per cent of the population, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the incidence in Egypt is as high as 18 per cent. Though infection rates are highest in older age groups, an estimated 3 in every 1,000 Egyptian children are believed to carry hepatitis C.

The virus was initially spread through the population when needles were re-used to give injections against bilharziasis/schistosomiasis in the 1960s-70s. Since then, a general lack of proper hygiene precautions is blamed for continuing the spread of infection. Equipment used by dentists and medical staff can pass on the virus when tools are not properly sterilised. Once caught, hepatitis C can lead to serious liver disease and studies suggest as many as a million Egyptians could die from liver complications over the next few years.

The former Egyptian government allocated around 100 million dollars to combating liver disease and in 2010, free treatment was provided to 140,000 people. Now the interim government is continuing efforts to fight the virus, committing another 100 million dollars this year. Some of the money will be spent on opening up new treatment centres. The government also wants to set up a national database for the disease. This should help health planners to form better policies in order to tackle the problem. In addition, vaccines and free medical treatment will continue to be provided for poor families.

However, treatment is very expensive, at over 8,000 dollars per year. The total cost of supporting all those who need free treatment is therefore set to spiral, at a time when the Egyptian economy is struggling to rebuild itself following the Spring Uprising. IRIN spoke to an expert from Assuit University, who said that further money would be needed in order to combat the rising tide of sufferers.

To try and prevent new cases, the interim government is launching a massive public awareness campaign. Messages particularly need to reach the older generation whose infection rates are the highest. Around a quarter of adults over 50 year are thought to carry hepatitis C, compared to just 3 per cent of those aged 15-30. Organisers of the campaign say that money alone won’t solve the problem and that Egypt needs to change its culture. That means even the local barber must update his ways and start sterilising tools.

Laurinda Luffman signature