The prevalence of hepatitis is dropping among the nation's prison entrants, but infection rates could fall even faster through better immunisation against hepatitis B and treatment of hepatitis C, new research shows.
The findings are contained in the national report into blood-borne virus infection and risk behaviours among prison entrants, presented at the Australasian HIV Conference in Canberra.
Report lead author Professor Tony Butler, from The Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said there had also been no cases of HIV detected in more than 800 people coming into the nation's prisons in the period from 2007 to 2010.
This survey is important in monitoring blood-borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections in a population known to engage in a range of risk behaviours.
According to the research, hepatitis B prevalence rates among male injecting drug users entering the prison system fell to 19 per cent in 2010 from 31 per cent in 2007.
And the occurrence of hepatitis C among the same cohort of male injectors fell to 49 per cent in 2010 from 58 per cent in 2007. The drop in Victoria over this time frame was 28 per cent.
But Professor Butler said while the improvements were welcome, not enough was being done to prevent the spread of hepatitis B, despite the existence of a vaccine.
"We have a vaccine which is cheap, readily available and can be used to prevent hepatitis B infections. But we don't use it very well in this population," he said.
Professor Butler said prison health officials had so many health problems to deal with, including drug dependencies, mental illness, and cardiovascular diseases, that hepatitis B wasn't given enough attention. But even a short course of vaccination could make a big difference for prisoners.
The research further found that only 5 per cent of all prisoners with hepatitis C reported receiving treatment for their illness. Unlike hepatitis B, no vaccine exists for hepatitis C. Professor Butler said more treatment options were needed for people with hepatitis C.
"Prison is an opportunity to engage with one of the most marginalised groups in the community, to screen for health conditions such as blood-borne viruses, and initiate treatment and prevention measures," he said.
In a separate worrying finding the report found that tobacco smoking is at "epidemic proportions" among prisoners, with around 85 per cent saying they smoked. Appropriate smoking cessation programs were urgently needed for the number of prisoners "smoking themselves to death", Professor Butler said.
Media contacts: Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office | 02 9385 8107 |