Thousands screened for Hepatitis C virus

About 300 people have tested positive for Hepatitis C during a 15-month nationwide campaign that screened more than 8,000 people for the potentially deadly virus.

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ABU DHABI // About 300 of more than 8,000 people screened for Hepatitis C as part of a nationwide campaign have tested positive for the potentially deadly virus.

The Hepatitis C virus is mainly transmitted by blood-to-blood contact and can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

“We need more diagnosis of Hepatitis C – this is a silent killer,” said Dr Slobodan Nedeljkovic, head of Medical at Roche Middle East, which launched the HCV patient accelerate programme with the Emirates Gastroenterology Society in May last year. “Proper diagnosis is very important.”

Those who could not afford antiviral treatment have been given access to free medical care funded by UAE charities including the Emirates Red Crescent, Zakat Fund and Dar Al Ber Society.

About 2,000 people have also called a hotline, 800HEPC (800 4372), which provides information.

Dr Nedeljkovic said Hepatitis C was often called the silent killer as people often showed no signs until they had irreversible liver damage.

It is highly treatable if diagnosed early but about 80 per cent of those infected do not display symptoms, says the World Health Organisation, so early diagnosis is rare.

“This is the problem – diagnosis,” Dr Nedeljkovic said. “So the idea of the programme was to educate the public and to help get people diagnosed and to offer the treatment.

“A lot of patients in the UAE do not have proper insurance to cover the cost of treatment.”

The initiative will continue for the foreseeable future, he said.

“We have helped hundreds of people infected with Hepatitis C,” said Dr Maryam Al Khatery, president of the Emirates Gastroenterology Society, ahead of World Hepatitis Day on July 28.

“We started this campaign last year and since then we noticed a lot of patients. They are coming and curious to know about this disease,” Dr Al Khatery said.

“We wanted to help people who have this disease and cannot afford the cost of the medication.

“It is a curable disease if we catch it early. However, most people who have Hepatitis C discover it in the late stages.

“We still need more awareness and more education. We are trying to do our best to control the disease. But we can only do this if we discover it early.”

The WHO’s most recent estimates, released in April, show between 130 and 150 million people around the world are chronically infected with Hepatitis C.

And 350,000 to 500,000 people die from related liver diseases each year.

The most common modes of infection are through unsafe injection practices, inadequate sterilisation of medical equipment in healthcare centres and unscreened blood and blood products, the WHO says.

Those who are acutely symptomatic may suffer with fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, joint pain and jaundice.