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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

New UAE campaign targets thousands of undiagnosed hepatitis C carriers

Social media videos and 24-hour WhatsApp service aim to reduce stigma of getting checked out for killer virus

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

Social media videos and a 24-hour WhatsApp support service is targeting undiagnosed hepatitis C carriers in the UAE who may be unknowingly passing the virus on to others.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention backed campaign is hoping to open up discussion about the virus and its effects, and remove the stigma associated with getting checked out.

It is estimated there are 170 million carriers of the hevirus around the world, with the Middle East and North Africa region considered to have the highest regional infection rates.

Doctors have said fewer than 30 per cent of those infected with viral hepatitis worldwide are aware of their condition, increasing the chances of passing the condition onto others.

The virus can lead to liver failure and death if left untreated.

Speaking at a new partnership with the Emirates Gastroenterology and Hepatology Society, Dr Hussein Abdel-Rahman Al Rand, the MOHAP’s assistant undersecretary for health centers and clinics, said now is the time to act to help reach new diagnosis targets by 2030.

“For many years patients and the public have avoided discussions about HCV primarily due to the lack of understanding about the disease transmission as well as stigma often associated with it,” he said.

“The Ministry of Health and Prevention is committed to improving public health and reducing the risks of HCV.”

The World Health Organisation has set a '90-80-90 goal' - meaning that by 2030, healthcare providers should strive to achieve a diagnosis in 90 per cent of HCV carriers, of which 80 per cent are treated, and 90 per cent are cured.

“This should be possible as HCV is curable if people are screened, diagnosed and treated,” Dr Al Rand said.

“Viral Hepatitis represents a considerable public health challenge at the global level, and in the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region.

“Because there are few noticeable symptoms, many people are either misdiagnosed or do not come forward for testing.”

The virus is recognised as a major cause of liver cirrhosis, end stage liver disease and the most common type of liver cancer – hepatocellular carcinoma.

Prevalence of the virus in the UAE is estimated at less than 1 per cent, but only 30-50 per cent of patients are diagnosed.

“We have a test for anti-bodies and a screening programme that is effective in detecting hepatitis C,” Dr Maryam Al Khatri, president of the Emirates Gastroenterology and Hepatology Society, said regulation of tattoos here in the UAE would help reduce that risk similar to that in beauty salons.

“Because of hygiene and lack of sterilisation and screening, we know that people born between 1945-1965 and those in developing nations are more at risk, so should consider being tested.

“We have been working on a universal database of patients with hepatitis C and better record keeping to improve our own information on the virus.”

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The educational campaign aims to raise awareness among the public about hepatitis C (HCV) risks and prevention as well as to support patients and their families through the treatment journey.

The ‘Ready To Be Hepatitis C Cured’ campaign will open up a dialogue with potentially undiagnosed carriers through Twitter and Facebook.

Campaign educational videos and a 24-hour WhatsApp support program for HCV-positive patients are promising to guide them to reach their goals of being cured.

Direct acting antiviral drugs have been proven to slow the progress of liver damage, and increase cure rates.

Although Elias Mhanna, general manager at the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Middle East, would not say how much a course of drugs to treat a single patient would cost, he did say the treatment would last about 12 weeks.

“Our drugs will be made available to any patient who requires them, and any patient who is on the programme,” he said.

“We are working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to make sure these drugs are available and affordable to anyone who needs them and are also covered by health insurance.

“We believe that everyone should have access to treatment so we can address these challenges on all fronts.”