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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2003 Week 1 Hansard (20 February) . . Page.. 293 ..

Health-Standing Committee

New inquiry

MS TUCKER (11.39): I seek leave to make a statement regarding an inquiry by the Standing Committee on Health.

Leave granted.

MS TUCKER: The Standing Committee on Health has resolved to conduct an inquiry into access to syringes. The terms of reference are to inquire into and report on access to syringes by intravenous drug users, with particular regard to after-hours access, access in prisons and remand centres and access by indigenous people.

Mr Speaker, the need to conduct this inquiry has come from consultation with the community. All members of the committee are interested in looking at the question of access to syringes, particularly after-hours access and access in prisons and remand centres and access by indigenous people.

This matter needs to be looked at because of the alarming rate of hepatitis C infection in the community. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that is spread through blood to blood contact, primarily through injecting drug use. However, the sharing of personal care items such as toothbrushes and razors with infected persons can lead to the risk of infection. This is also the case with persons undergoing non-sterile medical or dental, tattooing or piercing procedures.

Although the virus is treatable, there is no vaccine and it can lead to chronic liver disease, resulting in the need for transplant or death. Current estimates suggest that more than 200,000 Australians have been infected with this virus, and that 11,000 new infections are occurring each year. The Hepatitis C Council of New South Wales estimates that one in every 100 people has HCV.

Although hard copy records were lost in the recent bushfires, as of this morning ACT Health's Communicable Disease Control, Disease Surveillance and Management Service can report that so far in 2003-in the last 51 days-24 cases of HCV have been notified. On average, 200 to 300 cases are notified in the ACT each year. However, HCV only tends to be notified once the infected person is involved in some form of drug or other treatment program. The service estimates that 22 of the above cases were unspecified, meaning that the person had been infected for an unspecified period of time, therefore increasing the risk of passing the infection on.

Although it is not just intravenous drug users who get HCV, sharing syringes is the biggest risk factor for infection. Access to syringes is recognised as a major factor in the fight against the spread of HCV. The acting Minister for Health also acknowledged this in the recent annual reports hearings of the committee. The committee has identified after-hours syringe access, syringe access in prison and remand centres and syringe access by indigenous people as particular areas of concern. However, this is a community-wide problem.

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