Public health advocates suggest clean syringes should be made available in late night service stations and convenience stores. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Needle exchange services should be provided in late-night convenience stores, petrol stations and in all Australian prisons to help stop the spread of hepatitis C, says a public health group.
A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit warns hepatitis C has become a "silent pandemic'' that kills 350,000 people each year.
The impact of the disease was likely to increase as many people who were infected with the blood-borne virus before it was discovered in 1989 reach the end stages of associated medical conditions.
Commenting on the report, the president of Hepatitis Australia Stuart Loveday said health authorities were doing well to combat the disease but more action was needed, such as in the area of prevention.
Mr Loveday said better access to clean injecting equipment for intravenous drug users should be considered.
"We would dearly love to see injecting equipment in service stations, in late-night convenience stores because the primary needle and syringe programs are open only from nine to five and that's limiting access and service,'' he said.
"So we need expansion of outlets, we need more distribution machines - vending machines and the like. Overall, we need a proper official look at what the impact of the drug laws in Australia is on blood-borne virus transmission.''
Mr Loveday praised the ACT government's proposal for a needle exchange program in Canberra's jail.
"It is something that we believe is absolutely essential to reduce the transmission of blood-borne viruses, particularly hepatitis C. Prisons are a hotbed of hepatitis C transmission,'' he said.
Hepatitis C can spread between prisoners and then into the general community when detainees are released, Mr Loveday said.
"The need for a prison-based needle exchange is not just necessary in the Alexander Maconochie Centre, it is necessary in every single prison in Australia. That's not going to happen yet, however the ACT is showing great leadership.'' Chief Minister Katy Gallagher's plan for a needle exchange program in the Alexander Maconochie Centre has been opposed by the prison officers' union and the Liberal Party.
Hepatitis C can damage the liver for decades before symptoms appear. It can also lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The Economist Intelligence Unit report said that in developed countries the stigma associated with drug use could deter many people at risk of hepatitis C from being tested.
In developing countries, many people became infected through the health system when injections were given with unsterilised equipment or when infected blood was transfused.
The report was funded with an educational grant from the pharmaceutical company Janssen.
In 2006, it was estimated that there were about 9700 hepatitis C transmissions in Australia each year. It is believed the transmission rate has since fallen.
Mr Loveday said that in 2011 there were about 225,000 people living in Australia with chronic hepatitis C.