ACR Health Prevention Services in Syracuse is looking for ways to reduce HIV and hepatitis C infection rates in New York state prisons.
According to federal statistics, inmates have the highest rate of HIV in New York, compared to any other state, and many of those inmates are co-infected with hepatitis C. To fight that, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS has a campaign that emphasizes public awareness, education and access to testing and treatment.
C. Virginia Fields, president of the commission, says one of the best places to take the campaign is prison.
“With this closed population, you may have a better chance, in some ways, of getting through because you have a built in audience, so to speak," Fields said. "You have an opportunity to provide information, to provide testing, to do treatment.”
The prevalence of hepatitis C infections in prison inmates is substantially higher than the general population. Fields adds that educating people about AIDS and hepatitis C is important, because of how often they show up together.
“Co-infections are something we are paying a great deal of attention to," Fields said. "So for people living with AIDS, we certainly do a lot of education around that to get them tested for hepatitis C, because of the co-infection rates.’
Fields says it’s also important to control these diseases in prison because inmates eventually will find themselves back in their communities.
But does the education work?
"You know, none of us can determine that," Fields explained. "We can only make sure people are educated. And having gone through the problems that most of them have probably gone through, that would be enough. But can we guarantee that? Absolutely not.”
Fields says part of the problem is sometimes drug abusers go back to bad habits, using dirty needles or sharing drug paraphernalia. Another problem is that hepatitis C doesn’t show any symptoms for many years, turning up as a chronic disease later in life. So much of the education is now aimed at baby boomer populations.
Fields spoke at a Breaking Barriers Summit in Syracuse, spurred by the high number of inmates infected with these diseases.