Imagine a young man or woman, as young as 20 years old, struck by an immunity disease and facing the possibility of a disability which will make it difficult to talk, walk, and live normally. That is the tragedy of MS –if left untreated.
Last year, on the 12th of March, Ain Shams University- one of the two oldest and most established universities in Cairo, witnessed the opening of a first-of-its-kind unit for treating Multiple Sclerosis in Egypt.
Almost a year later, on the 6th of February 2015, the first annual conference for the Multiple Sclerosis unit was launched, aiming to discuss the financial challenges that MS patients in Egypt face, and shedding light on the importance of early detection and right diagnosis.
Multiple sclerosis or MS is a disease in which the causes are still shrouded in mystery.
For an unknown reason, the autoimmune system attacks its own tissues, eventually destroying the fatty substance that protects nerve fibers in the brain and the spinal cord.
In Egypt, the most recent statistics by the ministry of health shows that MS Cases comprise 1.4% of all neurological diseases, and that the number of sufferers around the country total approximately 40,000.
The major problem with MS is that it usually strikes at a very early age, affecting those between the ages of 20 and 40 in 70 % of the cases.
According to Dr. Dina Abdel Gawad, Assistant Professor at the Ain Shams University Neurology Department, what distinguishes the unit is that the role is not limited to offering treatment, but also the provision of tests and check-ups at nominal prices, including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
Moreover, specialised clinics have been established including a urinary tract clinic - as MS patients may suffer from urinary incontinence - as well as a psychological treatment clinic for patients suffering from depression, as depression rates amongst MS patients are relatively high in comparison with other chronic diseases.
A nutritional clinic had also been inaugurated, and check- up tests never exceed 10 LE. Still, and despite all the effort, tangible challenges loom.
Dr Samia Ashour, Professor and Head of the Neurology Department at Ain Shams University, placed emphasis on the aspect of financial burden. "The unit continues to ensure strict application of state-paid-treatment decisions for all underprivileged patients who are receiving treatment at the unit. This means the allocation of between EGP 2000 and 3000 for these patients to cover 3 – 6 months of treatment.
"Unfortunately, at a later stage, when patients are unable to afford to go on, with the price of medication reaching EGP 4000, they are forced to discontinue their treatment," she said.
Dr Ashour stressed that there is a dire need to review the budget for those who cannot afford to continue with the treatment. “Patients suffer both physically and psychologically during their treatment journey, and the least we can do is alleviate their financial burden."
Over 300 patients joined the host of doctors and scientists to discuss the difficulties that the underprivileged face when it comes to this health problem, and the importance of raising more awareness.
“MS was - for a long time - unknown and difficult to diagnose, and we suffered greatly in order to obtain the correct treatment, and now that it has become clear that many young people in Egypt suffer from the disease, we would like to see more support, especially financial support, which can help us maintain constant treatments, to prevent deterioration in the condition,” one MS patient said.
Other challenges that still persist are lack of awareness of the disease and the incidents of inaccurate diagnosis.
“The earlier treatment begins, the better chances a patient has to remain in the first stage of the disease and not progress to more advanced stages," says Dr. Magd Fouad, Professor of Neurology.
“Successful treatment for this disease is based on early detection and we therefore urgently need comprehensive awareness and education campaigns, as MS is often mistaken for other diseases, such as Rheumatoid and Lupus, which manifest with similar symptoms," says Dr. Hany Aref, Professor of Neurology at the Ain Shams University.
Aref added also that there is a shortage in the number of doctors specialising in the treatment of MS.
According to statistics provided by the WHO, 30 out of 10 000 people are affected by the disease, with a total number reaching 2.5 million patients worldwide.
It is noted also that women are twice as likely to develop MS.
After road accidents, MS is regarded as the second most common cause of disability around the world.