Hepatitis C screening campaign uncovers several dozen cases

Dozens of people have tested positive for hepatitis C during the first two months of a nationwide screening campaign.

DUBAI // Dozens of people have tested positive for hepatitis C during the first two months of a nationwide screening campaign. According to health officials, of 2,550 individuals screened randomly at clinics and labour camps under C-Watcher 2010, 27 tested positive. That lines up with the World Health Organisation's most recent estimate, in 2002, which predicted that between one and 2.5 per cent of the population was likely to have the virus.

An element of the campaign that asks people at high risk of hepatitis to come forward for testing found another 48 patients with the virus. The aim, according to Dr Amgad Abulfutuh, therapeutic area manager for hepatitis C at the pharmaceutical company Roche, which is running the programme with the Emirates Medical Association, is to give free tests to 50,000 people by the end of this year. "At least 30 per cent of people who have hepatitis C are not even aware of it," said Dr Adnan Hammour, consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Abuhamour Medical Centre in Dubai.

"Sometimes up to 90 per cent of patients are not even being treated. We don't want to scare people and make them panic, but early detection and treatment is crucial because it increases the chance for a complete cure to 95 per cent." Hepatitis C, which is spread through contaminated blood, affects four times more people than HIV. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and loss of appetite, and it can lead to liver cancer and death.

Dr Abulfutuh said the campaign aims to be active about screening, rather than waiting for people to seek testing. "We visited 13 labour camps, in Dubai and Al Ain and the Northern Emirates, and screened 1,000 workers in their camps," he said. Of the 1,000, 12 tested positive. Of 450 people screened at primary healthcare clinics in Sharjah, 10 were infected. "We also collaborated with the Dubai Health Authority to educate and screen people at Deira City Centre for two days. We screened 1,100 individuals, and among them, found five infected with the disease."

The test takes just five minutes to produce a result that is 95 per cent accurate. Those who test positive are given a second test for confirmation. If that, too, is positive, further tests are taken to determine treatment. Nationals are treated for free. Expatriates have to pay, but the Dh15,000-Dh30,000 bill is usually covered either by insurance or by charities including the Red Crescent Authority, the Dubai Charity Organisation and the Dubai Women's Association.

"Part of the campaign is to continue following up with patients that tested positive, in order to ensure they are administering their treatment correctly," Dr Abulfutuh said. Treatment usually involves weekly injections for six months or a year. The C-Watcher campaign has placed 50,000 vouchers for free testing at hospitals and primary healthcare clinics across the country. Anyone with a voucher can go to one of four labs involved with the scheme for a free test.

A questionnaire helps individuals determine whether they are at risk. The questions include: Did you receive a blood transfusion before 1992? Do you have any tattoos or body piercing? Have you been in contact with blood at the workplace, especially if you are a healthcare worker, police officer or firefighter? Mr Abulfutuh said that of 202 patients who had considered themselves at risk, 50 tested positive.