Thursday, March 4, 2004

Prison needle cleansing programme

Disinfecting Tablets

The Department of Health and the Prison Service appeared to be at odds last night over a needle cleansing programme designed to protect prisoners from blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis.

From April 1, inmates, [prisoners], will be given disinfecting tablets similar to those used for sterilising babies' bottles. But health department officials said last night that cleansing tablets were not the best way to protect against the transmission of diseases.

"I don't think we would encourage this [needle-cleaning] as being as effective as the issuing of sterile needles," said a spokesman. "We don't recommend it. We regard the needle-exchange programmes in place throughout the whole of the [health] system as the most effective way of reducing blood-borne diseases."

A disinfecting scheme was first tried in 1995, but was later withdrawn for safety reasons.

Doctors and drug-user support groups have also challenged the move, claiming that a needle exchange scheme would be safer and more effective.

Critics claim ministers fear that the introduction of a needle exchange scheme would be a tacit admission of the scale of the drugs problem in prisons.

"There is no foolproof way of cleaning injection equipment - it is easy to get the cleaning process wrong," said Michael Linnell of Lifeline, a drugs support agency. "You could be encouraging people to share because they think the equipment has been cleaned. That increases the risk of spreading blood-borne viruses."

The Guardian has obtained a copy of Prison Service instructions on the scheme issued to governors, including those in private jails.

It says the new policy aims to combat "the spread of HIV and other blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis, [which] are readily spread when drug users share contaminated injecting equipment".

It points out that that "similar arrangements [for cleaning needles] have worked well in Scottish prisons since 1993".

The Prison Service says the scheme was approved by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which was asked to design a strategy for the reintroduction of disinfecting tablets at all penal establishments.

The school believes that a tablets pilot scheme tested at 11 prisons between 1998 and 1999 was successful, and that the scheme should operate in all prisons. The home secretary, David Blunkett, has accepted its advice.

Last night a spokesman for the Department of Health said it was not opposed to the cleansing scheme in prisons. "Whilst it is acknowledged in the community at large that needle exchange programmes are an effective method, there are drawbacks to similar schemes in institutional environments," it said.

But a consultant in tropical and blood-borne diseases in the north-west of England said needle cleaning was less efficient than needle exchange.

"A needle exchange programme has been in place in Manchester for far longer than in some other cities," he said. "That is almost certainly the reason why Manchester has a lower prevalence of the spread of blood-borne diseases than areas which started similar schemes much later."

A GP who practises in an area with a high rate of heroin use added:

"Disinfectant tablets may prevent the spread of some skin diseases, but are unlikely to combat blood-borne viruses effectively."

By Eric Allison, prisons correspondent posted 4 March 04


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