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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
Disease Rates High in Massachusetts Prisons; Rate of HIV
Stephen Smith
October 20, 2003
Boston Globe (10.19.03) - Monday, October 20, 2003

A study from the Massachusetts Public Health Association found that prisoners in the state have some of the highest rates in the nation of HIV, hepatitis C and other chronic conditions. Health officials say measures must be adopted to reduce the spread of such illnesses once prisoners are freed.

Although the soon-to-be-released report does not specifically address why conditions such as HIV are so common among Massachusetts prisoners, disease specialists speculate that much of the blame can be attributed to the wider use of injectable drugs in the Northeast. Massachusetts prisoners have the 7th-highest rate of HIV in the nation. Twenty-seven percent of males and 44 percent of females in the prison system have hepatitis C. Female prisoners are 24 times more likely to have hepatitis C than women in the general population. Sharing drug needles can spread both HIV and hepatitis C.

Researchers said the high disease rates make jails and prisons incubators of illnesses that prisoners can spread when they return to their often-disadvantaged communities. State Sen. Richard T. Moore, chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care, has introduced legislation that would allow inmates to become immediately eligible for Mass Health Essential, the state's health plan for the poor, upon leaving custody. Currently, they must wait weeks or months to access the system.

An initiative in western Massachusetts serves as a model. Inmates entering facilities run by the Hampden County Correctional Center are matched with medical teams from health centers in the prisoners' neighborhoods. The team oversees the inmates' care while they are incarcerated and after their release. Studies showed that 80 percent of former inmates with chronic conditions continued to get treatment from their neighborhood health centers after they left the prison system.