Five Questions with Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack was Indigenous X host from July 27 to August 3.

It’s Hepatitis Awareness Week from 27 July to 2 August. In my role at Hepatitis NSW, I’ll be working to get the week’s three key messages across, particularly to Indigenous Australians.

When we talk about closing the gap, we often talk about very siloed ideas of what that means: there’s over-incarceration, the health gap and the education gap, for example. But viral hepatitis, and particularly hepatitis C, is one of those areas where it all links together in a horrible cycle that ends up disproportionately affecting Aboriginal people’s health.

The over-incarceration of Aboriginal people means that more of us are in an environment where there are very high rates of hepatitis C. We’re more likely to inject drugs and share equipment when we do inject drugs, and our historic disconnection from the health sector means that people aren’t getting treatment and they aren’t being monitored. We’re also often disconnected from health messages that educate drug users to inject safely due to educational disparity and geographical distance.

Colonialism and racism play a big role, too. Even today people claim that over-incarceration occurs because Aboriginal people commit more crimes. That is wrong. The evidence suggests Aboriginal people are more likely to be searched for drugs, more likely to be arrested if they do have drugs on them and more likely to be sent to prison if they are arrested.

Conservative estimates state that 30%-50% of people in the criminal justice system at any one time have, or have had, hepatitis C. Ex-prisoners tell stories of one needle being shared between 10 to 20 people again and again and again. If you were trying to design the ideal environment for hepatitis C transmission, you would come up with something that looks a lot like our prison system – a high number of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes, who currently inject drugs but who are then denied access to sterile injecting equipment.

About 90% of new hepatitis C infections come from shared injecting equipment. A lot of people now understand not to share needles, but hepatitis C is a startlingly infectious disease and can be passed on by traces of blood on things like tourniquets and swabs. So if people don’t know not to share absolutely anything related to injecting, they can still transmit the disease.

In that remaining 10%, things like backyard tattooing and piercing and prison tattooing – which we know happens frequently in the Aboriginal community – are a big risk factor.

There is a persistent myth that Aboriginal people share injecting equipment because of the culture of sharing. That is just not the case. The real reason is a combination of access to sterile equipment and low health literacy. We know when people are given the information and capacity to look after their own health they do, and Aboriginal people aren’t any different to that.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Aboriginal people using drugs are more heavily policed than non-Aboriginal drug users. We have heard of people accessing needle syringe programs (NSPs) and being targeted by police doing that, even though that’s not supposed to be a thing that police do.

I cannot be any clearer that the easiest way to reduce hepatitis C transmission would be to introduce NSPs in prisons.

We also know that a lot of Aboriginal people are reluctant to access NSPs where they may be recognised by members of their communities as someone who uses drugs. There are some places, especially regional and remote areas, where there just aren’t NSPs. Aboriginal medical services that have implemented NSPs find that some people don’t access it because that’s where they get all their healthcare needs met and they don’t want their healthcare providers to know they use drugs. Some of the services are countering this by putting vending machines in places where they can’t be seen but there is still more work to be done.

I cannot be any clearer that the single easiest way to reduce hepatitis C transmission would be to introduce needle and syringe programs in prisons. The statistics for hepatitis C in prisons are staggering. People don’t stop injecting when they go into prison and they don’t stop injecting when they come out of prison. We know that some people actually start injecting when they go into prison. While prisoners are no more or less valuable than any other member of the community, it is also a way of passing that infection into the general population.

Owing to myriad complex factors, we tend to cycle people through prison in repeated short sentences, and that includes a number of marginalised people not being offered bail . Drug treatment programs, however, are only available to prisoners who are incarcerated for a minimum of six months. In practice, this means we are effectively imprisoning many people for using substances illicitly, but telling them they’re not in prison long enough to be treated for dependency on those substances. With no NSPs in prisons, this puts inmates at huge risk of hepatitis C transmission.

I’ll be using my week on @IndigenousX to draw attention to the numerous Aboriginal-specific resources developed by hepatitis organisations around the country. There is a lot of localised, low level literacy material available all around Australia that can help get the three key messages of World Hepatitis Day and NSW Hepatitis Awareness Week across to the Aboriginal people who need it most.

In short, the three messages for this week are:

  1. Get tested. If you’ve ever injected drugs, even just once, even a long time ago; if you’ve had a tattoo or a piercing; if you’ve lived with someone who had hepatitis B or C, you should go and get an easy blood test at your GP, an Aboriginal health service, or a sexual health clinic. The results are entirely confidential, and apart from a few exceptional cases, you don’t have to tell anyone if you have hepatitis.
  2. If you’re living with hepatitis B or C, get a liver check. Nowadays this check is easy, there’s no probing or cutting, it’s the equivalent of an ultrasound that can tell you how damaged your liver is. Based on that, you can make decisions about treatment and lifestyle modifications.
  3. Ask your doctor about treatment. There are some new medications for hepatitis C that will hopefully come out very shortly. They have already been approved by the TGA and recommended for approval by the PBAC – it is now up to the commonwealth government to provide funding for them. In terms of hepatitis B, there are already effective treatments that can help to prevent progression to serious liver disease. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you today.

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