Lack of privacy, lack of peer support and lack of harm
reduction are perceived as the biggest barriers to improving the uptake of
direct-acting antiviral treatment for hepatitis C among prisoners, a
qualitative study among prisoners in Australia has found.
The findings, published in the Journal of Viral Hepatitis,
underline the need for messaging from prison authorities which emphasises the
opportunity for treatment, say the authors of the study, who are associated
with the STOP-C study of hepatitis C elimination in prisons in the state of New
Hepatitis C is highly prevalent among prisoners, as many
incarcerated people have a history of injecting drug use. The most recent
survey of hepatitis C virus (HCV) prevalence among prisoners in Australia found that 22% tested positive
for HCV and 58% reported having injected drugs at some point in the past. HCV prevalence among people who inject drugs in prisons in Australia may be as high as 60%.
As well as benefitting the individual prisoner, increasing
the uptake of direct-acting antiviral treatment would also have wider
preventive benefits, by eliminating hepatitis C in people who are injecting drugs
both within closed networks in which sharing of injecting equipment takes place
within the prison and also on release. The STOP-C study is examining whether rapid scale-up of direct-acting antiviral treatment in prisons can reduce the incidence of HCV among prisoners.
Although prisoners should have equal access to health care
under international human rights agreements, uptake of hepatitis C treatment
among prisoners is low even where it is provided.
To explore barriers to starting direct-acting antiviral
treatment in prisons, researchers interviewed 32 prisoners at four correctional
facilities in New South Wales.
All participants had a history of injecting drug use, half
the participants had chronic HCV infection, three had cleared previous
infection spontaneously and the remainder had either been cured of hepatitis C
or were awaiting the results of post-treatment virological testing. Fourteen
were receiving opioid substitution therapy at the time of interview.
Participants found that prison clinics could provide
convenient on-site health care that overcame barriers of distance and transport
experienced outside prison.
know the clinic is two hundred yards from where we are living and on the
outside if you’ve got to go to the hospital and if you haven’t got transport,
people just tend not to, because they’re running around. (Male,
HCV undetectable, previously treated with cure).
Some participants also thought that
prison provided an opportunity to deal with health issues that might get put to
one side in the outside world owing to other pressures. Problems with drug use
and housing were cited as examples.
But participants often saw being in
prison as a big structural barrier to being cured, due to the lack of access to
clean needles and syringes.
is better… Because girls who have undergone treatment in here, they’re going to
keep on using aren’t they, so they are going to catch it again…. You won’t get
re-infected outside because you’ve got the needles, the cleaner needles. (Female,
HCV undetectable, treatment naïve).
Some thought that the best time to
complete a course of treatment might be just before release from prison, as
that would minimise the risk of being reinfected due to lack of clean needles
Confidentiality was also a big concern
for participants using prison health clinics. Being identified as having HCV
might lead to exclusion from injecting networks in the prison or other
undesirable social consequences. Concerns about confidentiality and pressure to
disclose reasons for visits to the prison clinic have also been cited in
previous research as barriers to HCV testing in prisons.
A lack of support from family and
friends was also cited as a barrier – “you know, real friends, genuine friends”,
as one male prisoner who had gone through one unsuccessful course of treatment
The investigators suggest that prison
health services seeking to encourage the uptake of treatment should emphasise
the following messages to prison inmates with HCV:
- Ease of access to treatment in the prison
Accessing HCV treatment in prison is an
opportunity for self-improvement prior to release, a 'new start'
- Treatment is free.
Prisons should also focus on bringing
injecting networks into treatment together rather than penalising injecting.
Treating entire injecting networks at the same time would also reduce the risk
of reinfection in the absence of needle and syringe programmes in prisons.