Dubai: By 2020, the whole world aims to be hepatitis C free — and the UAE is on track on this front.

A liver disease which causes inflammation, liver scarring, and liver failure if left untreated, hepatitis C (HCV) affects about 150 million people around the globe according to the World Health Organisation. Of this number, more than 350,000 people die every year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases.

In the UAE, the incidence of HCV is low but screenings must still be made in order to get proper treatment for the disease dubbed the silent killer for it is usually asymptomatic.

“We don’t have a big problem of hepatitis C in the UAE. With the genotype 1 [of HCV], which is predominant among UAE nationals, the treatment is promising and we have treated a large number of patients and the response is more than 70 per cent with the new drug. We hope by 2020 we can eradicate the virus from UAE nationals,” Dr Salem Awadh, consultant gastroenterologist and former president of the Emirates Gastroenterology Society, told Gulf News on the sidelines of the Media Academy on Hepatitis C in the Middle East on Saturday. The academy was sponsored by MSD, a global health-care company that works to create vaccines and treatment options for many diseases, including HCV.

Based on a MSD-PharmARC study in 2011, a total of 642 cases of HCV have been reported in the UAE with Dubai reporting 278 cases and Abu Dhabi 204 cases. Of this number, 70 per cent are expatriates – with Egyptians representing the largest number, followed by Pakistanis. The remaining 30 per cent are UAE nationals.

“These are UAE nationals who received blood transfusion before 1991. At that time we didn’t know the virus and we were importing blood from outside, mainly from the US and Europe where genotype 1 is the most common,” Dr Awadh said.

HCV is transmitted through contact with an infected blood of another person.

With new treatment options currently being studied and soon to be introduced in the market, Dr Awadh is optimistic that old carriers of HCV will soon be treated. The focus can shift on newly detected cases among UAE nationals who transmit HCV through needle-sharing.

“We are detecting new young patients, young generations of patients between 25 and 40 who have been using IV or intravenous drugs [illegal drugs administered through the veins], who are UAE nationals and these people need to be counselled. We have a big rehabilitation centre in Abu Dhabi for which these people are admitted and they are treated,” Dr Awadh said.

HCV treatment for UAE nationals is free while expatriates who are HCV positive may seek treatment through different non-government organisations.

Meanwhile, other countries in the MENA region, especially Egypt, with high prevalence rates of HCV are campaigning for international and local cooperation in order to rid the country of HCV. Access to affordable treatment options are also needed, Dr Hesham Rafaat Mohammad Al Khayat, of the Theodor Bilharz Research Institute in Egypt, said.