Hepatitis C virus is rife in SA prisons

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Hepatitis C infection is endemic among the South Australian prison population, with 42% of the State's 1700 prisoners infected with the virus, according to a University of Adelaide study.

Epidemiologist and University of Adelaide PhD graduate Dr Emma Miller said injecting drug use is common among the State's prison population and responsible for the high rate of the blood-borne virus in SA's prisons.

"Seventy per cent of people entering our prisons have a history of injecting drug use and although most of them modify that behaviour in prison, contaminated needles represent a significant threat to other prisoners and staff," she said.

Tattoos also account for up to 5% of all newly notified cases of Hepatitis C in South Australia, the study found. The majority of these tattoos are applied within the prison system.

Approximately 700 inmates were interviewed for the 15-month study of South Australia's eight publicly-operated prisons, which revealed an entry prevalence of Hepatitis C approximately 40 times higher than in the general population. The figure for female prison entrants is even higher, at 65%.

In a bid to reduce the spread of Hepatitis C in the prison system, Dr Miller has made several recommendations to the SA Department for Correctional Services and SA Department of Health.

"A successful methadone program is already well established and positively evaluated in all of our prisons, but it's currently the only systematic strategy in place specifically aimed at reducing the transmission of blood-borne viruses in prison."

Dr Miller conducted the study as part of her PhD in Medicine, which she completed in 2006. She will graduate at an offshore ceremony in Hong Kong on Tuesday 17 April, along with 38 other University of Adelaide students.

Dr Peng Bi from the School of Population Health and Clinical Practice supervised Dr Miller's PhD.

Dr Miller is now working as an epidemiologist at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne.


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