THE federal Government’s conservative tough-on-drugs policies have triggered an explosion in hepatitis C infections, a secret health department report has found.
Go to online feedbackTHE federal Government’s conservative tough-on-drugs policies have triggered an explosion in hepatitis C infections, a secret health department report has found.And the disease has become an “epidemic”, with half a million Australians likely to have the debilitating virus by 2020.The paper, prepared by independent experts for the federal Health Department, lashes the Howard Government for “abrogating responsibility” and refusing to provide leadership and resources to fix the “urgent” public health problem.Health Minister Kay Patterson has kept the report from the public since she received it last November.But a copy obtained by The Australian reveals a damning critique of the Government’s failure to act.”The (Government’s) strategy has not succeeded in controlling the hepatitis C epidemic in Australia. The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated,” it says.The experts are particularly critical of “zero tolerance” policies adopted by conservative state and federal leaders.The “zero tolerance” approach tries to stamp out illicit drug use instead of trying to make their inevitable use safer.”There is a growing recognition that criminalisation of injecting drug use . . . has contributed to increased transmission rates.” The experts call for a national public awareness campaign and better partnerships with groups working with injecting drug users.The hepatitis C virus causes chronic liver disease in up to 85 per cent of those infected. It is transmitted through blood with up to 90 per cent of new infections from injecting drug use but rarely spread through sex.The report calls for drastic government action to boost prevention and safety. “Otherwise too many people will continue to become infected and Australia will not be able to meet the substantial costs of treating and caring for the hepatitis C-affected community in 15 to 20 years’ time,” it says.The experts also say spending more money makes good economic sense. “Expenditure on prevention of hepatitis C infection will be offset by future savings on end-stage treatment of hepatitis C-related liver disease and liver transplants.” The expert panel included Howard Thomas, head of the department of medicine at St Mary’s Hospital in London, Fran Baum, who heads the public health department at Flinders University, and Michael Levy, the population health director at the NSW Corrections Health Service.There is no vaccine for the virus. But a new treatment, which boosts the success rate from the present 30 per cent to 60 per cent and is available in many other Western nations, is languishing without taxpayer subsidy in Australia.Labor senator Jan McLucas said it was “unforgiveable” that Senator Patterson had refused to share the secret report with the public.”It’s simply appalling that she could let this languish in her in-tray when more people are infected every day.”A spokesman for Senator Patterson said part of the report would be released next month, while the Government had allocated $16 million to reduce transmission.”That’s a significant amount of money,” he said.But Ruth Verzeilberg, who contracted the virus from a shared needle while experimenting with heroin as a teenager, said more effort was needed to stop the suffering of people like herself.”We should be doing so much more as a society to stop people needlessly going through this,” she said.YOUR FEEDBACKHow about a headline that reads: ‘Death and crime epidemics lead to drug law that leads to hep C epidemic’. Now that would be a more honest summary, though less tasteful to those that would prefer to blame everything bad on prohibition instead of the drugs themselves.Or you could try: ‘Irresponsible junkies give themselves hep C in spite of exposure to education programs since childhood’; or how about the snappier ‘Determined druggies keener than customs to catch hep C’. Dave EdwardsBrisbane, QldIt is not “inevitable” that anyone of any age will use illegal drugs and especially not “inevitable” that they would use intravenous drugs. This type of drug use usually comes at the end of a long period of experimentation with other types of substance abuse. If the probability of contracting a deadly disease is part of the package of intravenous drug use, then that will be one more consideration the drug user will have to take into account before they inject. Illegal drug use should not be glamorised, normalised or made “safe” in any way. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest the increase in teenage intravenous drug use is related to the ease of obtaining clean needles, making the injection of drugs appear just that little bit “safer”, just that little bit more glamorous.The figure of 500,000 cases of Hep C by 2020 probably assumes that the currently high level of illegal drug use in the community will continue, but the effects of the “zero tolerance” regime will kick in long before we reach 500,000 cases of Hep C.You know that zero tolerance is beginning to work when you get this kind of hysterical response from parts of the the medical community who by their well-meaning but ill-considered actions only succeed in exacerbating the problem.Margaret KibbleSydney, NSWDrug use is an issue that demonstrates the multi dimensional nature of the political spectrum. Surely the Liberal Party, which stands for freedom of the individual, should be for decriminalization of drug use and especially harm reduction. The old ethos of “drugs are bad” and “zero tolerance” can’t be sustained anymore. If the Liberal Party continues to upheld an “old-right” attitude of trying to control individuals to make them adopt certain values against their will, then I will not be able to vote for them again. I also urge The Australian to open up debate on this topic.Michael GurnikAdelaide, SAAustralia was one of the first countries to set up clean needle programs for reducing the harm caused by IV drug use, however there is still a long way to go. As long as someone like Brian Watters is responsible for drug reform we will go backwards in dealing with the harms caused by IV drug use eg. HCV, HBV, HIV, mental health, family and money problems etc. The government is not open to alternatives to ‘tough on drugs’ – eg, prescription heroin, more safe injecting rooms – all measures to reduce harm. After all, IV users are people with a health issue not criminals, society has made it this way.Rodney NolanAdelaide, SA(Source: The Australian, By Misha Schubert, June 13, 2003)