Source: ABC Far North / By Mark Rigby

Pressure is mounting on the Queensland Government to implement Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs) in the state's correctional centres amid an outbreak of hepatitis C at a Far North Queensland prison.

Key Points:

  • A spike in hepatitis C infections in Far North Queensland is being attributed to an outbreak of the blood-borne disease in a prison
  • Proponents of Needle and Syringe Programs in custodial settings say they reduce transmission of infectious diseases
  • The union representing corrective services staff say needles and syringes present an unacceptable risk to prison officers

Health authorities in Cairns have recorded 61 newly acquired cases of the blood-borne disease to date in 2020 — more than four times the year-to-date average over the last four years, and more than any other Queensland region.

Darren Russell from the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service said most of those cases were linked to the Lotus Glen Correctional Centre.

"What we are seeing is increasing amounts of injecting drug use [at the prison] and that is occurring particularly in a group of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who haven't injected before," Professor Russell said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrective Services said the average prison sentence for male prisoners in Queensland was about eight months, meaning there was a significant turnover of prisoners.

That, combined with the rise in hepatitis C infections, has raised concern about the disease being transmitted in Queensland's remote Indigenous communities when prisoners are released.

"People that revolve through the system are reservoirs of infectious diseases that get back out to our communities," said Apunipima Cape York Health Council's Mark Wenitong.

Needle and syringe programs a human right

Section 37 of Queensland's Human Rights Act, which came into effect on January 1, 2020 stated that every person had the right to health services without discrimination.

Katelin Haynes, the chief executive of Hepatitis Queensland, said this section of the act meant people incarcerated in the state's prisons should be given access to NSPs just as people in wider society were.

"People in prisons have a right to equality of health services and that includes harm reduction measures, health promotion measures and education, as well as more traditional medical approaches like testing and treatment of hepatitis C," Dr Haynes said.

"Under the Queensland Human Rights Act everyone has a right to health services and we see NSPs as a health service."

The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL) has long campaigned for the introduction of NSPs in Australian prisons.AIVL chief executive Melanie Walker said more than a dozen countries had implemented NSPs in prisons "without the sky falling in".

"In fact, quite the opposite.

"What it has meant is that there's regulation of needle and syringe use in prisons and what we know is that in any given country injecting equipment is getting into prisons — where there is a will there is a way."

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