Egypt is believed to have the largest prevalence of the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) in the world, with 7% of the population – approximately eight million people – infected. Hep C is a disease that costs the country thousands of lives and millions of dollars. However, through some clever manoeuvres, the country has become the place to go to get cured on the cheap… and enjoy a package holiday.
First, a bit of background on Egypt’s history with Hep C
Egypt’s tumultuous history with the disease originated in the 1960s when a widespread government campaign to treat Egyptians suffering from the parasitic disease schistosomiasis (known locally as bilharzia) went very, very wrong.
Unsterilised needles were used to inject millions of villagers across the country. These were likely contaminated with the blood-borne HCV and resulted in the current epidemic.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C infection, and the majority of them (in low-income countries) lack access to life-saving testing and treatment. This was true for Egypt until recently.
The WHO also noted that the virus kills an estimated 40 000 Egyptians each year and at least 1 in 10 of the population aged 15 to 59 is infected.
Changing the narrative
In the last five years, the country has made great strides in lowering the rates of one of their most imminent public health threats thanks to intervention from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and a landmark deal with California-based pharma giant Gilead Sciences in 2014. Under this agreement, Egypt was allowed to purchase their three-month course of Hep C medication, Sovaldi, for $900 per person — a massive discount compared with the $84,000 then charged for the same treatment in the US.
The system put in place by Egyptian health officials ensured there would be no leakage of the drug to other markets.
However, the entrepreneurial Egyptians found a way around this red tape.
Taking one step further, the Egyptian program came to rely on even cheaper alternatives to Sovaldi that are produced locally, with a three-month course of medication costing as little as $80.
The success of Egypt’s Hep C program and access to extremely cheap cures sparked the country’s venture into medical tourism.
Tour n’ Cure
Back in 2016, Egypt’s Health, and Tourism and Aviation Ministries, in collaboration with Prime Pharma and its affiliate, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, an Alexandria-based generics maker, launched the Tour n’ Cure campaign. The campaign has been a huge success and the Government even managed to score soccer superstar, Lionel Messi, as an ambassador for the campaign.
For around $7000, Tour n’ Cure offers flights, a week’s stay at a five-star hotel in Cairo or Sharm el-Sheikh, blood tests, three months’ worth of treatment (which is completed upon the patients’ return to their own country), follow-ups and excursions to Egypt’s historic landmarks.
To date, the country has cured of a million people who were suffering from Hep C, many of whom were medical tourists from overseas.
There are those who frown upon these practices believing that they may deter innovators like Gilead from entering into agreements with governments in need in the future. It opens up the larger debate of drug pricing and how one country’s cures can range so drastically in price compared to others.