Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

UAE works to eliminate Hepatitis C virus over next decade

Early screening and awareness is crucial say health campaigns

A laboratory assistant examines a blood sample. Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
A laboratory assistant examines a blood sample. Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

The UAE is on track to eliminate Hepatitis C by 2030 with early detection and diagnosis, but doctors and the public need better awareness of the disease.

Health officials said the prevalence of the killer virus is less than two per cent due to educational programmes and the country is on its way to reaching the World Health Organisation’s goals by 2030.

“Physicians should feel empowered to drive screenings and be fully equipped with the knowledge required for early detection and treatment in patients,” said Mohamed Farghaly, director of insurance policies and health economics with Dubai Health Authority. He was speaking at an event organised by Gilead Sciences, an American biotech and drug company.

“Early detection and treatment is paramount to preventing health problems that may result from infection, as well as preventing the transmission of the virus," he said.

Cases can be treated with antiviral medicine but many are not aware of their condition, do not show symptoms and this can increase the likelihood of the virus passing to others.

Many people are often faced with barriers to testing... a lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding that can lead to stigma and discrimination

Dr Nawal Al Nahdi, Rashid Hospital

If left untreated, Hepatitis C can cause liver failure, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

There are an estimated 170 million carriers of Hepatitis C around the world and the Middle East and North Africa regions have the highest regional infection rates. The virus causes approximately 399,000 fatalities each year worldwide, according to WHO.

The prevalence in the UAE ranges from 0.24 to 1.64 per cent, as per DHA figures. But medics have said up to 70 per cent of patients remain undiagnosed.

As part of a strategy announced by the WHO two years ago, the aim is to reduce new infections by 90 per cent and mortality by 65 per cent.

“Many people are often faced with barriers to testing,” said Dr Nawal Al Nahdi, consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Rashid Hospital.

“These barriers include lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding that can lead to stigma and discrimination. Focused testing for most affected populations would help us solve the problem.”

The UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention along with the DHA launched awareness campaigns last year entitled ‘Ready to be Hepatitis C cured’ and ‘Dubai without C’ to promote diagnosis of the virus.

The DHA also included free screening and treatment for Hepatitis C under the basic benefit plan of the Dubai mandatory health insurance scheme to extend the number of people who would be covered.

Egypt and Pakistan have the highest number of people chronically infected with the virus.

Egypt's hepatitis epidemic - about one in 10 had the disease in 2008 - can be traced back to a nationwide vaccine campaign in the mid-20th century against schistosomiasis, a parasite spread to humans by freshwater snails in the Nile Delta.

In the push to eliminate the disease, needles were repeatedly reused and the hepatitis virus, which was not yet known at that time, was inadvertently spread.

The country has taken strides to tackle the disease in recent years, striking deals with drugs companies and driving down the cost of treatment significantly.

Updated: June 23, 2019 03:45 PM

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