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|Electron micrographs of hepatitis C virus.|
Today, 28 July 2011, marks the first World Hepatitis Day that is officially supported by the World Health Organization.
While the disease claims around one million lives every year, and millions more suffer long-term illness and severe complications, its burden is no more evident than in Egypt, where Hepatitis C is a serious epidemic.
Here are some numbers to put the scope of the epidemic in focus:
1) While globally, roughly one in every 50 people is infected with Hepatitis C virus, that rises to one in every seven of people living in Egypt. That means a little over 14% of the most populous Arab state have been infected with the virus at some stage of their lives.
2) A total of 10% of the population are, however, carrying the viral load and are thus chronically infected. This is by far the largest percentage in the world. In fact, it is over five times higher than other countries that have high Hepatitis C rates.
3) A recent 2010 epidemiological study has suggested that more than half a million people get infected annually with Hepatitis C in Egypt.
4) 40,000 people die annually in Egypt due to Hepatitis complications, such as liver failures and cancers. Hepatitis C is the second biggest cause of death following heart diseases.
5) Around 75% of all cases of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer in Egypt and the Middle East are caused by Hepatitis infections.
6) So far, there are no vaccine for Hepatitis C. There is no effective treatment either, the current 48-week treatment course of interferon and the antiviral drug ribavirin is expensive and has a success rate of around 60%.
But all is not gloomy for Hepatitis C. A recent Nature Outlook on Hepatitis C, has looked into the challenges the disease poses, but also takes a look at several new drugs about to be launched that could substantially improve treatment.
The greatest challenge to combat the virus will remain, however, raising awareness. While Hepatitis C is mainly spread through healthcare services since it is a blood-borne virus, bad social practices help spread it as well. This includes reusing razors at barber shops and using repeatedly using the same equipment for circumcision of boys in poorer areas of the Middle East.
I’m hopeful that events such as the World Hepatitis Day do help raise awareness and empower people to inquire, especially when visiting healthcare practitioners, about the measures they took to protect their patients from Hepatitis C.