Egypt, once top Hepatitis C sufferer, draws cure seekers

Like millions in Egypt, Ahmed Nada suffered silently from Hepatitis C. But the country is turning from the world’s most afflicted by the disease to a global destination for those seeking a cure. Nada, 31, only learned that he carried the virus when he tried to donate blood.

“At first I was very angry,” he said. “I kept thinking whether it was from my previous work as a dentist, or from the barber or from what? I didn’t know.”

Previously, a Hepatitis C infection, even when diag- nosed, would have gone untreated or simply been managed.

But a cheap new drug produced in Egypt since 2015 and a government pro- gramme to eliminate the condition meant Nada could be easily cured.

He registered on a govern- ment website and was di- rected to the nearest treatment centre. Now cured along with more than 1.3 million other Egyptians, Nada says the en- tire process was simple “from the moment I filled in the application.”

Egypt has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis C infection in the world, an epidemic that started with a government programme for mass vaccinations with unsterilised syringes in the 1950s.

Seven percent of people aged between 15 and 59 have an active infection, according to Egypt’s 2015 Demographics and Health Surveys.

40,000 deaths per year 

The blood-borne virus can cause serious damage to the liver before being detected, and can be fatal.

About 20% of those who be- come infected get better with- out treatment, but the rest can remain infected for up to 30 years without showing symp- toms.

“Just about every family in Egypt is touched by Hepatitis C,” World Health Organization official Dr Henk Bekedam wrote in a 2014 re- port on the disease, which the agency said was killing about 40 000 Egyptians a year. Since 2006, Egypt has carried out surveys to determine the epidemic’s spread and negoti- ated cheaper drugs from abroad.

However, its first break- through came when the US- based Gilead Sciences pharmaceutical company de- veloped Sovaldi, a cure ap- proved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2013. Egypt negotiated a deal to re- duce the price of a course of treatment from $84 000 or $1 000 a pill, to a fraction of that. The National Committee for Control of Viral Hepatitis set up a website so sufferers could access the drug.

“The first day we had 100 000 patients, the second day 100 000 patients registered, and the following week 50 000 patients daily,” said Manal Hamdy el-Sayed, a founding member of the committee running the programme.

No more waiting lists

“People were waiting impatiently,” she said.The next breakthrough came in 2015 when Egypt began to manufacture the drug locally, re- ducing the price for the full course to just $83, the com- mittee’s executive director Kadry al-Saeed said. Waiting lists for the cure ended in July 2016, and the government is now searching for an estimated three million Egyptians who carry the virus without knowing it, Saeed said.

Now an Egyptian company has capitalised on the low cost of the cure locally to at- tract patients from abroad, where the drug is seen as ex- orbitantly priced. Tour N’ Cure treats visiting patients for about eight percent of the treatment’s cost abroad.

“We treat patients in almost all countries,” said Mostafa el-Sayed, the campaign’s managing director. The company says $7 000 covers flights, a week’s accommodation, blood tests and treatment – and five days of tourism in Egypt.

Patients return home with the remainder of the medicine while Egyptian doctors fol- low up with them. Mirel Damboiu, 59, from Romania, heard about the treatment through his daughter and son-in-law. “The treatment was successful from the first five days,” said Damboiu.

“In Romania this treatment is not available to buy,” while another treatment available there would have been “very invasive,” he said.

Damboiu will have his final round of treatment in Sep- tember before undergoing final tests

AFP

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