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Prisons need needle exchange programs, OMA says
OTTAWA - One of the largest doctors organizations in Canada on Tuesday called for needle exchange programs in prisons and jails across the country.
The Ontario Medical Association made the call as the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, an international think-tank, released a comprehensive report on HIV and other injection drug-related infections among prisoners, including hepatitis C.
The general population is put at risk when infected prisoners are released from jail, said John Rapin, OMA president.
"The frequent movement of individuals between prisons and the community means that any transmission of the disease within prisons will increase the risk of disease transmission in the community," he said.
The OMA says the HIV infection rate among prisoners is 10 times higher than in the general population. Hepatitis C is 29 times more prevalent behind bars than in the general population.
"These folks are going to ... go on injecting, but they have sexual partners who they are quite capable of infecting with both hepatitis C and HIV, so this should be regarded as a major public health issue," said Dr. Peter Ford, an AIDS expert who has worked in federal prisons for almost 20 years.
IN a new position paper called Improving Our Health: Why is Canada lagging behind in establishing needle exchange programs in prisons?, the OMA says Needle exchanges should be set up in Canadian penal institutions within 18 months.
The doctors are backed up in their call by the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which on Wednesday released Prison Needle Exchange: Lessons From a Comprehensive Review of International Evidence and Experience.
The report was compiled over two years, and looks at needle exchange programs in six European countries.
The report finds that the programs reduced the sharing of dirty syringes and home-made injection equipment among inmates, which in turn reduced the spread of disease. There was also a reduction in drug overdoses.
The report found no evidence that such programs increase drug use or endangered staff, who feared these syringes could be used as weapons.
"When it was initiated several years ago, the staff were very fearful about the program," said Rick Lines, of the Irish Penal Reform Group, recalling what happened when needle exchanges were set up in Ireland's prisons.
"But six or seven years later, when they saw the safety benefits, they were the ones lobbying the government to maintain the program, not cancel it," he said.
The Ontario doctors group is expected to call on governments to start pilot projects immediately, the first time a provincial doctors group has taken such a stand.
The push for needle exchange programs in prison is not new. Exchange programs have been in place in several Canadian cities since the late 1980s, and are regarded as an important tool in controlling the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.
Five years ago a committee set up by the Correctional Service of Canada recommended a program, but the recommendation was shelved.
Written by CBC News Online staff
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Audio Interview on HIV/AIDS Legal Network Report