Dr Fatima Nassar, professor of Clinical Immunology at the Cancer Institute, said at a press conference yesterday that treating up to 328,000 patients with Hepatitis C each year starting 2018 could reduce the spread of infection by 94 percent and liver-related deaths by 75 percent by 2030.
“With ongoing efforts in Egypt, we can even surpass these numbers,” Nassar said, referring to efforts by the government in recent years that saw Egypt gain global recognition for its fight against Hepatitis C, with the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrating World Hepatitis C Day in Cairo in 2015.
The press conference was held in Cairo on 26 July – two days ahead of World Hepatitis C Day – by several medical organisations from the private sector, as well as the regional office of the World Hepatitis Alliance, an NGO that works with governments and other key partners to raise awareness of viral hepatitis and advocate the elimination of stigma around the disease in some societies.
Egypt has the highest prevalence of the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) in the world, according to the WHO. In 2015, it was recorded that every year sees 170,000 to 200,000 new HCV cases in Egypt.
A number of Egyptian companies have started manufacturing medications similar to Sovaldi, which increases chances of survival for those infected by 90 percent. This started three years ago when Gilead Sciences worked to provide the drug for one percent of its market price.
With the increased availability of the drug, the challenge has become to diagnose those infected and increase awareness.
Dr Ammal Mokhtar, regional director of the World Hepatitis Alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, highlighted the importance of awareness.
"In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, we toured many villages in Egypt to shed light on the importance of early detection, and we talked to women and children, dedicating several animated films to the latter in order to address the issue in the simplest way possible."
Mokhtar stressed that in many remote places in Egypt, stigma still prevails, and people are confused about how to handle someone with the virus.
"We explain that HCV is transmitted through blood, and is spread through many practices that are conducted carelessly, such as the circumcision of kids. But we stress that food, drink and sexual interaction do not spread the virus, which is a common misconception."
Mokhtar explained that although breakthroughs have been made, challenges still remain.
"Despite the reduction of the virus from 14.6 percent in 2008 to 7.5 percent in 2015 for the age group 15 to 60, it is still considered one of the highest rates in the world, especially in rural areas," she said.
“It is important to point out that screening is the only way to detect Hepatitis B and C, and the chances of success for the treatment of virus C depend on periodical testing and early treatment.”
Nassar told media representatives that the media is the key to reaching a wider audience.
Nassar added that people should also understand that although a cure is possible with currently available drugs, these medications do not provide immunity, and re-infection can occur.
“We are calling on people to conduct tests periodically, depending on their profession and circumstances. For example, those undergoing treatment by dialysis are more prone to infection than others.”
Nassar, who heads El-Borg – one of the most prominent laboratories in the field of HCV testing – shed light on the latest statistics from the facility revealing the lack of awareness in some of Egypt's rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt.
"Over 450,000 Egyptians have undergone Hepatitis C screening tests across the lab’s branches throughout 2016-2017. The vast majority of those who took the tests (46 percent) are aged 25 to 45, and 36 percent are between the ages of 46 and 60. Thirty-seven percent were from the Delta region, while Cairo represented 35 percent. Eighteen percent were from Upper Egypt and 10 percent were from Alexandria.”
“There is a need to spread awareness outside the major cities to encourage more individuals to undergo early detection tests,” Nassar concluded.
Mokhtar also said that the media needs to urge more people to test for HCV.
"Unfortunately, only 10 percent [of the overall population] are tested, and HCV has no vaccination and its symptoms could be mistaken for any common illness, until the matter deteriorates,” Mokhtar said.
"We call on the media to help make people more aware of the importance of early testing, and to encourage citizens to adopt the correct lifestyle, including maintaining high hygiene standards, using medical facilities that ensure proper sterilisation, and taking the vaccine for HBV to avoid the problem of combined infection, which aggravates the matter further."
The WHO defines Hepatitis C as "a blood borne virus, and the most common modes of infection are through unsafe injection practices, inadequate sterilisation of medical equipment, and the transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products."
At least 12 million Egyptians suffer from HCV, the Egyptian health ministry said last year.