Despite two decades of needle exchange

Despite two decades of needle exchange, London drug users continue to share needles (one in four drug addicts reported sharing needles in the past 4 weeks) and the spread of infectious disease is on the rise (40% of those who have been injecting drugs for six years or less are already infected with Hepatitis C and 3% percent are infected with HIV), according to a new study.
Cases of hepatitis C among young drug users in London are reaching epidemic levels, researchers warned today.
The number of people who inject drugs who now have HIV is also worryingly high, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
The researchers blamed the Government’s current drug policy for failing to protect this high risk group from bloodborne viruses like hepatitis C.
The team, from Imperial College London, the Health Protection Agency and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, estimated that four in 10 new drug users in London now had hepatitis C, which can cause fatal liver damage.
They also estimated that 3% of injecting drug users was now infected with HIV.
The results were based on tests involving 428 drug users who had been injecting for six years or less.
Hepatitis C and HIV can be spread by sharing needles and the researchers found high levels of syringe-sharing during their study.
One in four reported injecting with needles and syringes used by someone else in the past four weeks.
Researcher Dr Ali Judd, based at Charing Cross Hospital, west London, said: “Hepatitis C is now spreading at epidemic levels across London and HIV incidence is worryingly high, which if unchecked will lead to an increase in the total number of HIV infections.
“There is an urgent need for new and comprehensive programmes to tackle this growing number.”
Dr Matthew Hickman, from Imperial College London, added: “For the past six or seven years Government drug policy has focused on drugs and crime, and has been successful in expanding specialist drug treatment, especially through referral from criminal justice.
“However there is a need now to reinvigorate harm reduction policies that prevent transmission of hepatitis C and HIV.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the Government was committed to driving down cases of hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections like HIV.
“Almost £500 million will be spent on drug treatment in 2004-05 and we recently announced that all Drug Action Teams will get a 55% increase in their allocations between 2006 and 2008.
“The extra funding in the last few years has led to many more drug users engaging in treatment and an increase in the numbers successfully completing treatment.
“This is good news as there is clearly a link between getting people into treatment and substantially reducing the rate of blood-borne diseases.”
The spokeswoman added: “A Hepatitis C Action Plan for England was launched by the Department of Health in June 2004 calling for a review of harm reduction services to prevent hepatitis C transmission.
“Such services include provision of needle exchange services in the community, safe disposal of used needles and syringes and provision of specialist drug treatment services.”

Source: By Lyndsay Moss, Press Assoc. Health Correspondent November 12, 2004


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