Following two postponements of his visit, Argentinian football star Lionel Messi arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for a medical tourism campaign aimed at promoting awareness of Hepatitis C, a virus which Egypt has one of the highest infection rates of worldwide.
The footballer’s visit topped Egypt’s trending topics on social networking sites on Monday with the hashtag #Egypt_Welcomes_Messi.
Messi, a forward for Spanish football club Barcelona, will be visiting the country as part of the Tour N’ Cure medical tourism campaign “For a World Free of Hepatitis C.”
Tour N’ Cure is a recent joint initiative which aims to provide treatment of Hepatitis C in Egypt at reduced costs for foreign patients, while promoting tourism to the country. The project facilitates reservations of hospitals and hotels, according to the specific needs of visiting patients.
“Messi is one of the world ambassadors for Tour N’ Cure. His visit is meant to promote awareness regarding the virus, while also promoting medical tourism in Egypt for foreigners so that they can receive affordable treatment here,” Nesma Mohamed, spokesperson for Innovation PR — the public relations firm for Prime Pharma, one of the primary sponsors of Messi’s visit — tells Mada Masr.
Mohamed adds that Messi’s visit aims “to show that Egypt is a safe and secure destination to visit, to promote medical tourism to the country, and to help boost the national economy.”
Messi was originally scheduled to visit Egypt for the campaign in December of last year, but the trip was canceled after the deadly bombing of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo earlier that month. Messi’s trip was postponed for a second time following Barcelona’s defeat to the Paris Saint-Germain football club on February 14.
According to Mohamed, Messi’s day-long visit will include a trip to the pyramids, after which the footballer will attend a small ceremony in his honor at 7pm.
According to figures published on the Tour N’ Cure webpage (based on figures from the Ministry of Health), over 900,000 patients of Hepatitis C were cured in Egypt in 2016.
While the exact number of individuals infected with the virus across the country is not known, the World Health Organization (WHO) cites that at least 10 percent of Egypt’s population between the ages of 15 and 59 suffer from Hepatitis C. The highly infectious blood-borne virus kills approximately 40,000 Egyptians each year, according to the organization.
“Most people do not know they are infected, as they often do not have symptoms until they develop serious liver disease, which can be years later,” Stefan Wiktor of the WHO’s Global Hepatitis Program explains.
Hepatitis C rapidly spread across Egypt from the 1950s to 1980s, largely due to health officials’ reuse of non-sterilized needles in a mass vaccination campaign against schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia or Snail Fever.)
“This reservoir of infection was sustained for years because there was no awareness and no efforts to control the spread,” Dr. Manal al-Sayed from Egypt’s National Viral Hepatitis Committee tells Mada Masr.
The WHO praised Egypt’s official initiatives to confront the spread of Hepatitis C since 2006, stating that the nationwide plan for 2013-2018 drawn up by the Ministry of Health and National Viral Hepatitis Committee “places a strong emphasis on prevention.”
According to Egypt’s Health Ministry, since 2014 hundreds of millions of pounds are being poured into awareness programs and provide subsidized medical treatment, which involves the use of reduced price Sovaldi tablets and other anti-viral medications.
On average, treatment with anti-viral medicines may cure around 90 percent of cases.
The ministry reports that it has established more than 160 clinics and specialized treatment centers for those with the virus.
Egypt’s Health Minister Ahmed Radi told local media outlets this week that the ministry is planning to eradicate the virus from the country by 2020.
While applauding recent efforts, the WHO warns that Egypt may be witnessing tens of thousands of new infections each year, noting that around 80 percent of new infections occur in hospitals and clinics.
“Egypt is working to improve training on infection control for doctors and nurses,” the WHO states, adding, however, that the country’s “fragmented health system has made it difficult to maintain and reinforce national standards in health.”