Date: July 21 2012
DOCTORS are calling for Australian governments to introduce needle and syringe programs to prisons amid fears they have become a ''hotbed'' for blood-borne viruses, especially hepatitis C.
The call, supported by eminent scientists Peter Doherty and Sir Gustav Nossal, comes as a Victorian prisoner prepares to sue the state government for allegedly failing to protect him from hepatitis C in one of the state's 14 jails.
Lawyers say that if his case is successful,the government will be exposed to more legal action, forcing it to consider more protective measures for prisoners who are known to be injecting drugs with dirty equipment.
The director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Philip Lynch, said it was only a matter of time before a prisoner successfully sued a prison and government over exposure to infectious diseases.
Given more than 40 per cent of prisoners are carrying hepatitis C and drug use is occurring, Mr Lynch said inmates could argue that a failure to provide clean needles and syringes breached the state's common law duty of care and obligations under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
''These are not frivolous arguments. We've been advised by leading senior barristers and law firms on the merits of this,'' Mr Lynch said.
The case comes as various peak health organisations continue to push for needle and syringe programs in prisons, including the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Anex, a group working with Sir Gustav Nossal and Professor Doherty to reduce drug-related harm.
''Not only are prisons full of people with drug and alcohol problems, some people are injecting drugs for the first time in prison,'' said Anex chief executive John Ryan. ''It's a big problem … prisons are basically a hotbed for viral transmission.''
The Saturday Age can also reveal that:
■Victorian prisoners have been admitted to hospital for life-threatening bacterial infections caused by dirty injecting equipment.
■Doctors are angry about limits on drug and alcohol treatment in prisons causing some inmates to miss out on care.
■The prison guards' union is concerned about increasing needle-stick injuries after two Victorian guards were pricked this year.
■Victorian prison authorities are giving inmates bleach to clean syringes, a measure described by experts as inadequate.
Dr Mark Stoove, head of HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted infection research at the Burnet Institute, said studies showed bleach could reduce the risk of hepatitis C transmission by up to 65 per cent, making it a poor alternative to clean equipment.
''The provision of bleach acknowledges drugs are entering prisons and that injecting is occurring … so the question is do you provide this half measure to protect people's health or do you provide the evidence-based response, which is clearly prison-based needle and syringe programs?'' he said.
The president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Stephen Parnis, said there was no doubt drug use in prisons was contributing to ''alarming'' rates of hepatitis C, which could affect the rest of the community when inmates were released.
"AMA Victoria believes that prisoners should have the same access to healthcare as the general population,'' he said. ''This includes allowing them access to needle exchanges which are available outside of the penal system."
Lawyers for the prisoner preparing to sue the government do not want to release his name at this stage.
However, a former prisoner who served three stints in Victorian jails between 2006 and January this year, Saade Melki, said he saw frequent use of heroin, speed and buprenorphine with syringes that had been used dozens of times before.
Mr Melki said that he watched prisoners stabbing themselves with needles that were so blunt, they resembled hooks. ''There were times where I saw blood everywhere,'' he said.
The president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance Greg Barns said the unnamed prisoner's legal case could set a precedent that forced governments to reconsider needle and syringe programs in prisons, given they had significantly reduced disease transmission in 10 countries, including Switzerland and Spain. ''It would be a very brave government that would turn their heads away from it and say, 'Too bad, they're just prisoners'.''
Andrew Capp from the Community and Public Sector Union, the prison guards' union, said they opposed needle and syringe programs because prisoners could use needles as weapons. He said a guard who surprised two prisoners injecting drugs this year had a needle thrown at him by one of the inmates. ''Fortunately, it missed him.''
A spokesman for Corrections Victoria said it had no plans for a needle and syringe program in prisons.
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