Advocates Urge Canada To Implement Needle-Exchange Programs in Prisons To Prevent HIV Transmission
HIV/AIDS advocates are calling on the Canadian government to implement needle-exchange programs in the country's federal prisons to prevent the spread of HIV, the Winnipeg Free Press reports. According to Correctional Service Canada, 1.6% of federal inmates, or about 218 people, were known to be HIV-positive in 2006. The HIV prevalence in Canada's general population is about 0.2%, the Free Press reports.
Richard Elliot, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said studies across Canada have found that inmates have 10 times the rate of HIV than the general population and more than 20 times the rate of hepatitis C. Elliot added that many inmates are injection drug users and often resort to needles made from things such as ballpoint pens, which they pass around to other inmates. Although federal prisons do offer condoms and bleach to sterilize makeshift drug paraphernalia in an attempt to reduce the spread of HIV, Elliot said that this is not enough to curb the number of new cases that result from drug use and unsafe tattooing. Most inmates eventually are released from prison and can bring infectious diseases into the general population, Elliot said, adding that Canadian officials "disproportionately incarcerate drug users who are engaged in high-risk behavior, and we're putting them in prisons where there's limited access to addiction treatment."
Melisa Leclerc -- spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who was unavailable for comment -- said the federal government does not support "the use of illegal drugs or facilitating the use of illegal drugs in our prisons system." The government would "continue to support education initiatives that Correctional Service of Canada has put in place to educate inmates about the dangers of illicit tattooing," Leclerc said. She added, "However, like all Canadians, inmates must take responsibility for their own health."
Anne Marie DiCenso, executive director of Toronto-based Prisoners' HIV/AIDS Support Action Network, said that as many as 60% of inmates are drug users and that not offering them clean needles is a health concern. She added that not offering clean needles might cost the health system more in the long run, noting that it costs about $20,000 to $30,000 annually to care for a person who is HIV-positive. She said that the government already supports other harm-reduction initiatives in prison, including offering condoms to promote safer sex (Skerritt, Winnipeg Free Press, 7/15).