ACT News

Fresh jail infections to reignite needle talk

Six more prisoners have been infected with a serious blood-borne virus at the territory's jail since December.

The dramatic rise in hepatitis C infections at the Alexander Maconochie Centre will breathe new life into the debate over a needle exchange program for prisoners, with the Chief Minister's blood-borne disease management plan due to be released within weeks.

Katy Gallagher confirmed yesterday that six new infections in the jail had been detected up until the end of March, with Corrections Health saying that intravenous drug use was the most likely source of infection in all but one of the new cases.

The new infections bring to eight the number of confirmed ''in-custody acquired infections,'' with one of the prisoners understood to have ''body-cleared,'' or recovered, from the virus after transmission.

The true number of infections could be higher, with prison authorities unable to force prisoners to undergo screening for diseases.

Ms Gallagher said: ''[The new infections indicate] that hepatitis C is an issue, with infection rates in the high 50 per cent or low 60 per cent of the prison population.''

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Ms Gallagher said keeping drugs out of the jail was only one aspect of managing the problem.

''So we have to look at ways to manage the risk, on the corrections side, making sure that drugs aren't getting in, trying to educate prisoners in how to manage risks, removing injecting equipment when it is found,'' she said.

''But when all of that is done, at the end of the day, I also think it requires other means to minimise the risk and one of those is around providing prisoners with injecting equipment.

''It's not an issue that's going to go away.''

CPSU, the prison guards' union, has led opposition to a needle and syringe program at the jail, arguing it would put prison officers in danger. It said yesterday it was prepared to negotiate on the issue.

The union's ACT branch secretary Vince McDevitt said: ''CPSU is deeply concerned about this serious and complex issue, particularly in regard to the health and safety of prisoners and prison guards.

''It is important to acknowledge that around two out of three prisoners in the AMC are hep C positive and the vast majority of these present to the jail with a pre-existing infection.

''CPSU fully supports the revised testing program because we believe the long-term answer is rehabilitation and treatment.''

Chair of harm-reduction pressure group Anex, Professor Steve Wesselingh, said there would continue to be infections among the prison population unless a needle and syringe program was implemented.

''If it is confirmed that hepatitis C has been acquired in the AMC, this is awful but predictable news,'' Professor Wesselingh said.

''That hepatitis C transmissions are occurring, while people are in the care of the ACT government, strongly supports the view that prisoners should have access to sterile injecting equipment.

''There is an obligation to provide the same level of health care inside prisons as that which is available in the community, that is access to sterile injecting equipment.

''The government and the CPSU leadership are in a difficult position, but it has now come to the point where the mounting evidence is so compelling that a pragmatic and effective model can be agreed upon.''

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