Today, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) is calling for immediate action to curb the rising HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) infection rates among the prison population in Ontario and Canada.
The Ontario Medical Association is the voice of the medical profession in Ontario, championing the interests of more than 24,000 member physicians, residents and medical students, and their patients. For more than a century, the OMA has played a vital role in the development, promotion, and management of health-care services in Ontario.
"The frequent movement of individuals between prisons and the community means that any transmission of disease within prisons will increase the risk of disease transmission in the community," said Dr. John Rapin, President of the OMA. "We should all be concerned about disease spreading through our prison systems because we are at risk."
The OMA's latest position paper, "Improving Our Health: Why is Canada lagging behind in establishing needle exchange programs in prisons?" reveals that intravenous drug use in prisons is contributing to the transmission of these diseases in Ontario's communities. The OMA is recommending that all federal prisons and prisons in Ontario implement a needle exchange program (NEP) to help prevent the spread of these diseases.
"The high infection rates among prisoners poses a problem - We should be concerned both with their health as well as the health of our neighbours," said Dr. Ted Boadway, Executive Director of Health Policy at the OMA. "Disease is not limited to inside prison walls as prisoners become members of our communities after their release. "
Rates of HIV and HCV in prison populations in Canada are significantly higher than those found in the general population - the rate of HIV infection among prisoners is 10 times higher than the general population and 29 times higher for HCV.
These high infection rates make clear that current programs to prevent disease transmission in prisons are not working. NEPs are effective in reducing the spread of disease via injection drug use and are an accepted standard in the community.
Over 50 NEPs have been successfully implemented around the world and extensive research shows that syringe exchange does not pose any safety concerns to either prison staff or prisoners nor does it lead to an increase in intravenous drug use among prisoners.
"Various health and human rights associations in Canada have been calling for needle exchange programs for over a decade" said Dr. Peter Ford, Chair of the Committee on HIV Infection. "These programs have proven to be an important preventative health measure we need to keep all Ontarians safe and healthy."