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Urgent Action Needed on Hepatitis C in Prisons, says Penal Reform Trust

9th February 2004

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has today called upon the Government to take immediate action to prevent the transmission of Hepatitis C in prisons.  This follows the release of a report last week by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) ooncluding that the EU is facing "a hidden epidemic" of Hepatitis C that could overpower the health budgets of the group's 15 member nations.

Hepatitis C, a disease transmitted primarily by sharing syringes, has reached epidemic levels among injecting drug users in many EU countries, with infection rates ranging from 30-90%.    According to the EMCDDA report, over half of injecting drug users in Ireland who have been injecting for 2 years are infected with Hepatitis C.  Commenting on the report's release, EMCDDA Executive Director Georges Estievenart said, "Policy makers cannot afford to ignore the implications of Hepatitis C infection."

According to IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines, the report has significant implications for the Prison Service.  "Research in Ireland has shown that as many as one in three prisoners are living with Hepatitis C infection, and that up to 80% of imprisoned injecting drug users have Hep C.  At the same time, the evidence of widespread injecting drug use and the sharing of syringes in prisons is undisputable.  This situation clearly calls for urgent action by the Minister to prevent the further spread of disease by providing access to sterile syringes to injecting drug using prisoners and to provide treatment for those infected."

The provision of sterile syringes to prisoners who continue to inject drugs while incarcerated has been recognised as international best practice in preventing Hepatitis C and HIV transmission in prisons, and such programmes are operating successfully in more than 40 prisons in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.  However, Minister McDowell continues to ignore evidence of their effectiveness in preventing disease transmission and increasing staff safety, and has ruled out pilot testing them in Ireland.

According to Mr. Lines, "The Government has clear legal and ethical responsibilities to protect the health of prisoners which are set out in international human rights covenants and health guidelines. In his continued rejection of these prevention programmes, Minister McDowell not only ignores these obligations, but also denies people in prison and in the general population the broader health benefits that come from improving prison health standards.  This is particularly ironic as the Irish Government prepares to host a major international conference this month on 'Breaking the Barriers' the fight against HIV/AIDS.  In the case of prison health, it seems the Government is quite comfortable maintaining barriers rather than removing them."

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