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Clean needles a necessity for prisoners' health

23 October 2013

AMA Victoria calls on the State Government to urgently implement a needle exchange program in Victorian prisons.

In recent days, three reports have been released detailing the poor health of Victoria’s prisoners:

  • Victorian Auditor-General’s Report into the Prevention and Management of Drug Use in Prisons;
  • Australian National Council of Drugs’ position pager on Needle and Syringe Programs; and
  • Victorian Department of Justice’s Annual Report 2012-13.

The findings of each of these reports reinforce the necessity for needle exchange programs in prisons.

In 2011, the Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into Prisoner Access to Health Care found that 41 per cent of Victorian prisoners have Hepatitis C (compared to 1 per cent of the general population). Two years on, it is hard to see improvements in prisoners’ health.

“Hepatitis B and C are the most prominent and dangerous blood-borne diseases in prisons, which are usually contracted from sharing needles. Both of these viruses affect the liver and can lead to liver disease, liver cancer and, ultimately, death. The fact that 41 per cent of prisoners have hepatitis C is a disturbing figure and immediate action must be taken to reduce infection rates” AMA Victoria President Dr Stephen Parnis said.

“AMA Victoria believes that the availability of safe and sterile needles in prisons will lower blood-borne infection rates, and the health and safety of prisoners, prison staff and the public will improve. Victoria cannot be on the back foot with this, as was the case with condoms which have only been available in prisons since 2011” Dr Parnis said.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s report on drug use in prisons analysed Corrections Victoria and Justice Health’s drug and alcohol treatment programs, noting that the effectiveness of these programs cannot be determined due to shortcomings in performance measurements. In the health sector, all hospitals are accountable for various targets such as waiting times and infection control. It is unacceptable that prisons’ drug and alcohol treatment programs cannot be measured for effectiveness. A 41 per cent Hepatitis C figure needs rigorous monitoring, constant evaluation and drastic improvement.

Victoria’s prisoners are provided with “safe injecting information” and bleach, which prisoners can use to clean contraband needles. But this is not enough: an overwhelming number of organisations and researchers support the implementation of a needle-exchange program in prisons. Many prisons in other countries provide clean needles to inmates, resulting in lower rates of blood-borne diseases. And importantly, the availability of clean needles in prisons does not correlate with negative outcomes such as increased incidences of injecting, or needles being used as weapons, as most programs operate on a needle-exchange basis, meaning that there is no net increase in the number of needles in prisons.

“AMA Victoria urges the Victorian Government to implement a needle exchange program in the state’s prisons, as well as placing greater emphasis on measurable drug treatment programs. Minister for Health David Davis and Minister for Corrections Edward O’Donohue must address the seriousness of blood-borne diseases and the health of prisoners must not be ignored or left to deteriorate. Left to fester, this epidemic in prisons will inevitably spill over into the wider community” Dr Parnis said.


Media contact:
Felicity Ryan
Australian Medical Association Victoria
Media & Public Affairs
Telephone: (03) 9280 8753
Mobile: 0437 450 506

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