September 2016

Pride on the front line

Needle and Syringe Program workers should be proud of helping to address and reduce harm associated with injecting drug use, says the federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ms Sussan Ley.

Her message to NSP workers is one of encouragement – that their role is not just about dispensing sterile injecting equipment, but also about providing a platform for medical care, counselling and referral services to those in need.

“Frontline health-care workers, including NSP workers, face many challenges in their role and it is important to recognise this contribution,” Ms Ley says. “These workers assist in prevention and harm-reduction through delivery of health promotion messages and providing access points and links to treatment services as well as providing a first contact point for many.”

Appointed to the health portfolio in 2014 after a career as a senior staff member at the Australian Tax Office and having worked as an air-traffic controller and farmer, Ms Ley says it is important that NSPs have bipartisan support at all levels of government. She describes NSPs as an evidence-based public health response to the risk of blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV associated with injecting drug use, and says their value is substantial.

She cites statistics showing that between 2000-2009, NSPs averted an estimated 96,667 new hepatitis C infections and 32,050 new HIV infections. There was, in that period, a healthcare cost saving of about $1.2 billion.

“But most importantly, this is about ensuring equitable access to a broad range of healthcare services, and making sure health services are responsive to the particular support needs of communities and individuals,” she says.

NSP workers have an important role in providing vital information about new treatments.

Sussan Ley

NSP workers have a vital role to play in spreading information about the new hepatitis C DAA (direct-acting antiviral) treatments, Ms Ley says. “NSP workers, who are often the first point of contact for PWID, have an important role in providing vital information about new treatments that could benefit this population, especially with the new hepatitis C medicines.”

Ms Ley and the Turnbull government have done much to bolster the introduction of new hepatitis C treatments. In March, people with hepatitis C were given access to the publicly-subsidised breakthrough, thanks to an investment of more than $1 billion. Ms Ley said at the time patients would pay just $6.20 a prescription if they were a concession-card holder or $38.30 a prescription as a general patient for the medicines, listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

This would save them up to $100,000 for treatment.

“The Australian Government is aware that peer education is one of the most effective ways to educate people who inject with drugs about testing and treatments, and encourage the use of NSPs for prevention and safe-injecting practices,” she says.

Ms Ley says one of the priorities for improving the success of the NSP sector is ensuring NSPs are linked to the broader drug, alcohol and health system, including ensuring access to appropriate services at a local level.

Beginning in July this year, the Government is spending $298.2 million over four years to reduce the impact associated with drug and alcohol misuse to individuals, communities and families.

As well, Ms Ley says addressing stigma related to blood-borne viruses is a priority of national BBV and sexually transmissible infection (STI) strategies. “The goals of the strategies are to reduce the transmission of, and morbidity and mortality caused by BBV and STI, and to minimise the personal and social impact of Australians living with BBV and STI.”

Activities being funded under these strategies include developing national indicators for BBV- and STI-related stigma, plus a review of health-system barriers so that improvements can be made to access for people at risk of or living with BBV and STI.

Andrew Stephens