The Arab Republic of Egypt has the highest rates of new hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in the world, according to a new study published today in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study also estimates more than 500,000 new HCV infections occur in Egypt every year, likely signaling an epidemic in a country of more than 77 million people. This high rate of HCV transmission may be due to the lack of sufficient standard safety precautions in medical and dental facilities, the authors suggest.
“Nearly 7 out of every 1,000 Egyptians acquire HCV infections every year, suggesting intense ongoing transmission. This is the highest level of HCV transmission ever recorded at a national level for a blood borne infectious disease transmitted parenterally, that is, by use of non-sterile medical instruments,” said Dr. F. DeWolfe Miller, lead author of this study and professor of epidemiology at the Department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology at the University of Hawaii.
Although the high prevalence of hepatitis C in Egypt has been well established for many years, and linked in part to limited safety measures during anti-bilharzia campaigns, published estimates of prevalence from different Egyptian communities failed to provide a nationwide picture of the magnitude of ongoing HCV infection transmission. To estimate the rate of new HCV cases of infection in Egypt, the authors of the study performed epidemiologic modeling of data from a range of studies, including a 2008 national HCV survey with a representative sample and well-documented study design.
“The study opened our eyes to a disease burden similar in scale and challenge to the HIV problem in sub-Saharan Africa: Millions of cases of an infection for which there is no vaccine, no effective treatment, and where case management is so expensive that it is beyond the reach of most patients,” said Dr. Laith J. Abu-Raddad, co-author of the study and assistant professor of public health at the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Group at the Weill Cornell Medical College–Qatar.
The study necessitates not only further analysis of HCV transmission in Egypt but also justifies the immediate increase of resources to strengthen public health measures aimed at reducing the transmission of HCV in clinical and non-clinical settings, according to the authors. Failure to address this problem will result in a massive disease burden in the nation in terms of HCV infection complications, including active liver disease, liver failure, or liver cancer.
“There is only one way to deal with the HCV challenge in this country: HCV prevention,” warned Dr. Miller. “Effective and stronger HCV prevention programs are urgently needed in Egypt. Failure to act could swamp the public health system over the coming decades with millions of cases of HCV disease complications with an economic and social cost that this nation does not have the means to confront.”
Key scientific findings of the study
• Nearly 7 out of each 1,000 Egyptians acquire HCV infection every year for a total of 537,000 new HCV infections every year. This is by far the largest ever recorded rate of occurrence of HCV at a national level of all countries in the world.
• One in every 10 Egyptians is a carrier of the HCV infection, which means that there are at least 4,459,000 persons infected with HCV who are infectious to others. This is the largest reservoir of HCV infection in the world.
• Contrary to the widely-held perception that this rate of occurrence reflects merely the limited safety measures during anti-bilharzia campaigns, HCV incidence likely continues at alarming levels due to limitations in the implementation and enforcement of stringent standard precautions in public and private medical and dental facilities.
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