The latest government survey in Egypt confirms that at least five million people in Egypt are infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), amid an increasing number of infections, said a UN report.
The report pointed that "The annual infection rate is more than 70,000 new cases, of which at least 35,000 would have chronic hepatitis C."
The report quoted Dr Manal el-Sayed, Professor of Pediatrics at Cairo"s Ain Shams University and member of the National Hepatitis Committee saying that hepatitis C virus is a fatal virus which can cause liver damage and cancer. Egypt has one of the highest prevalence rates of the virus in the world, as an estimated 10-15% of the population-some 8-10 million people- are carrying hepatitis C antibodies, meaning that they either have or at one time had the virus. Five million of those are actively infected.
The report added that Egypt"s very high prevalence of HCV is largely the legacy of government campaigns prior to 1980 to treat rural populations for schistosomiasis (or Bilharzia), a water-borne disease which at one time was endemic in Egypt.
The treatment campaigns, which involved repeated injections, did not follow rigorous hygiene standards, and as such spread blood-borne HCV throughout the population.
"At that time, the Ministry treated people in the villages without using disposable syringes," added the report, pointing out that new infections are still being recorded, due to poor medical practices and behavioural factors. Deaths from liver disease are, therefore, expected to increase in Egypt within the next 20 years.
The Egyptian Health Ministry officials warned that by the year 2020 "we are going to have so many patients who are having liver failure and liver cancer, because the disease may remain inactive for 10 to 30 years. Treatment of HCV is usually done with a drug called Interferon. However the most typical type of HCV in Egypt has about a 40 percent resistance to the drug. Although research is ongoing, no more effective treatment is yet available.
The report said that the Health Ministry is trying to produce the Interferon with a reduced cost, but even with the cost of Interferon reduced, the financial burden of Egypt"s HCV problem is huge. It estimates that of the five million people actively infected with the virus, around one million currently need treatment. A year"s treatment for a person with signs of liver damage from HCV costs around LE 25,000 (about US $4,500) - a sum few can afford.