The green-eyed Afghan girl Sharbat Gula, made famous by a National Geographic cover, is likely to visit a private hospital in the city for treatment of Hepatitis C.
Sharbat isn’t the only one; in fact, she is one of the thousands of people who come to Bengaluru to get themselves treated as Bengaluru has become the hub of medical tourism for patients with this chronic disease.
Until April this year, there was no specific treatment for the disease.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) that mainly affects the liver. It can spread through contact with infected blood, by sharing needles or needle-stick injuries.
Dr Sonal Asthana, senior multi-organ transplant surgeon, Aster Multi-speciality hospital says, “In Karnataka particularly, the incidence of the disease is as low as 0.2-0.5 per cent as compared to Hepatitis B which is about two per cent. In states like Punjab the incidence is much higher which is about 5-10 per cent.”
The situation is similar in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and patients from there are coming in droves to get treated here.
Dr Vidyasagar Ramappa, consultant gastroenterologist, Columbia Asia Hospital says, “Before April this year, Hepatitis C was treated with the combination of a drug called Ribavirin and an injection called Interferon but success rate was only 40-45 per cent. In April, after Indian drug manufacturing units got the patent for producing direct-acting agents (Daclatasvir–sofosbuvir combination therapy), the treatment for the infection has changed dramatically.”
While the total cost of the treatment by the use of these drugs would cost up to Rs 1 crore, in India the whole treatment is covered within Rs 70,000.
After this, most of India including Bengaluru has seen a drastic boom in Hepatitis C patients from across the world.
“The huge disparity in costs of the treatment between India and Western countries brought about revolution in medical tourism,” Dr Asthana said.
Apart from Bengaluru, other prime hubs of the treatment of the disease are Hyderabad and Chennai. “But we have seen a trend where people prefer Bengaluru,” Dr Ramappa said.
Out of the total number of patients that Dr Ramappa sees, about 40 per cent are from outside India, mainly from Bangladesh, Middle East, Yemen and Iraq.
Dr Nikhil Bondare, consultant gastroenterologist, Narayana Health City says, “Until 1985, we did not even know that there an infection called the Hepatitis C. We called it the Non A and Non B virus. And when the medicines were introduced for the same, for a very long time there was no permanent cure for the disease. The existing combination had a lot of side effects that included severe dip in blood and platelet count. Now we have almost reached a complete cure stage.”
He sees at least two new patients from abroad every day. Hepatitis C is divided into six distinct genotypes. “In India the most common genotype is 1 and 3. In Western countries it is 2 and 4. These infections are commonly seen in states like Punjab, North East as intravenous drug abuse is quite rampant there,” he said