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, according a public health group.
A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit in London 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, Hepatitis Australia president Stuart Loveday said Australian health authorities were doing a good job to combat the disease but more action was needed, including stepped-up preventive measures.
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.''
The ACT government has proposed a needle-exchange program for Canberra's jail but other states have not taken such action.
''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, they are a hotbed or a powerhouse of the hepatitis C epidemic,'' he said.
Hepatitis C was spread between prisoners and then into the general community when detainees were released, Mr Loveday said. It could damage the liver for decades before symptoms appeared and led to cirrhosis and liver cancer. ''The need for a prison-based needle exchange is not just necessary in the Alexander Maconochie Centre [in the ACT], it is necessary in every prison,'' he said.