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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 17079

Mr JENKINS (4:40 PM) —Last week I was disturbed to read a number of reports that indicated that the increasing incidence of hepatitis C is reaching epidemic proportions. Some of the articles tied this explosion to what is described as the federal government's conservative Tough on Drugs policies. I do not wish to dwell on that point but to use this highlighting of the incidence of the epidemic in hep C to talk about the positive things that we can do within the community. One of those positive aspects is the needle exchange program. I wish to highlight tonight that, for the very modest amount of money that is put towards these programs, there has been an incredible outcome.

Over the decade from 1990 to 2000, state and federal governments invested about $150 million in needle and syringe programs. A report entitled Return on investment in the needle and syringe programs in Australia, released on 23 October last year, showed that this investment had spared 25,000 Australians from HIV infection, spared 21,000 Australians from hep C infection and, it estimated, avoided health costs of between $2.4 billion and $7.7 billion that would have been expended on treatment for HIV and hepatitis C infections. Even if the methodology is way out, if you compare the $150 million to the lower figure of $2.4 billion, this is an extraordinary result and outcome. The program is also predicted to prevent, by the year 2010—according to this report—4,500 HIV deaths, 90 hepatitis related deaths and 650 cases of liver cirrhosis among injection drug users. I put this in the context of the articles of last week that indicated that, regrettably, even with this reduction in the incidence of these diseases, we still have a great problem.

In the budget papers of this year it is indicated that over the next four years the government will provide $16.3 million for the distribution of injecting equipment to illicit drug users through needle and syringe programs. That is approximately $4 million a year. One of the things that I wish to emphasise is that this is only for the distribution of the equipment. In fact, the services on the ground have to provide the expertise and the staffing of these services. This is a real cause for concern. The Australian National Council on Drugs, in the position paper Needle and syringe programs, have emphasised and recommended that:

... all staff responsible for distributing injecting equipment should be trained to a level that enables them to provide important health and referral information to clients, as well as brief intervention, where appropriate.

This is one of the things that I really think we should look at. Here is a program that, for a very modest amount of money, can have a devastating impact on the incidence of these diseases. Shouldn't we query whether there should be a modest increase in the type of investment we make, to capitalise even more on what this can produce?

Also in the budget there is an item which goes to funding, about investigation of the use of retractable syringes. I am fairly open about whether this will end up being an effective program. But certainly bodies like the Australian Hepatitis Council, when the original funding over four years of approximately $25 million was put in place, queried whether directing it that way was the best use of money. It indicated that whether we use this syringe technology would be a commercial decision.

The council have welcomed the reduction in the amount that is put in through this budget, but they also highlight that they are open, because they want to see where the reduction is going to be redirected. They see that it is crucial that we continue to make sure that programs like those in my local area and in the northern suburbs of Melbourne—programs such as North-East Drug Harm Prevention—get the proper funding outside just the equipment. Skilled people have to be involved in those programs. The North-East Drug Harm Prevention program, in association with the local community health service, has a very effective mobile collection service. It has worked with steroid drug users through different gymnasiums, which is a growing problem in the local area. These programs are very effective. I place on notice that I think the government should look at the way it could even expand the dramatic outcome and effect these programs can have by looking at how it can increase the funding of needle exchange programs. (Time expired)