Drug use and hepatitis infection are widespread in Irish prisons

July 06, 2000

Prevalence of antibodies to hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV and risk factors in Irish prisoners: results of a national cross sectional survey

Drug use and infection with hepatitis C are endemic among Irish prisoners, stressing the need for scrutiny and improvement of the Irish prison healthcare system, according to a study in this week's BMJ.

Researchers in the Republic of Ireland surveyed over 1,300 prisoners aged between 16 and 67 years of age who were considered to be at medium or high risk for blood borne viral infections. The authors found 9% of prisoners had evidence of current or past infection with hepatitis B, 37% with hepatitis C and 2% with HIV. Drug use is the most important predictor of infection, say the authors. Prisoners who reported injecting drugs were 81 times more likely to be positive for hepatitis C and 22 times more likely to be positive for hepatitis B than non-drug using prisoners. Alarmingly, the authors also found that 21% of prisoners reported that they had started to inject drugs while in prison and 71% reported sharing needles in prison - clearly increasing their risk of infection even further.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, injecting drug use in prison is here to stay, say the authors. Despite improvement in community drug treatment services, the Irish prison healthcare system has not kept pace with the high rates of injecting drug use and sharing of needles within Irish prisons. They call on policy makers, researchers and clinicians working in prisons to implement measures to ensure that being in prison does not add to the health risks of this already disadvantaged population.

Fiona Bradley, Lecturer in General Practice, Department of Community Health and General Practice, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Republic of Ireland. Email: fbradley@tcd.ie

Lelia Thornton, Specialist in Public Health Medicine, Eastern Regional Health Authority and Lecturer in Public Health, Department of Community Health and General Practice, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Republic of Ireland. Email: thornton@ehbph.iol.ie


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