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Pioneering health screen for prisoners praised by Royal College of Nursing

August 10 2020

Care UK’s pioneering campaign to eliminate hepatitis C among prisoners in more than 40 English prisons has been shortlisted for an award by the Royal College of Nursing.

Funded through an NHS England partnership with Gilead Sciences, one of the major makers of antiviral treatments, Care UK’s Health in Justice blood-borne virus (BBV) team has been shortlisted for its work in helping to radically reduce this communicable disease that can infect the liver. If left untreated, it can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver, whilst also adversely affecting mental and general physical health.

The disease is mainly transmitted through sharing unsterilised needles, razors or toothbrushes and, more uncommonly, through unprotected sex. According to the NHS, it is estimated up to 215,000 people in the UK have been exposed to hepatitis C.

Traditionally it has been hard to diagnose and treat patients for the condition, as those with alcohol or drug dependencies do not tend to engage easily with health services or have a stable home base. Also, many people do not recognise the symptoms of the disease, which can resemble drug and alcohol withdrawal, including flu-like symptoms, fatigue and abdominal discomfort.

The team has earned the trust of prison governors, specialists and charities, as well as the participants themselves, by working with peer groups to explain the disease and reduce the stigma around it. The project is believed to be the largest in Europe and the team has already taken opportunities to share their experience at conferences to improve the pathways or access to care for more patients, both in the UK and worldwide.

National BBV lead nurse for Health in Justice Hannah Alexander said: “I was delighted when I heard the team had been shortlisted. They have worked so hard in the quest to eliminate the disease from prisons. This is an exciting project, as a controlled environment gives us the fantastic opportunity to diagnose and treat - really improving the health and outcomes for our patients.

“The team have used high intensity testing days on the wings, which has encouraged many more people to come forward for testing than has ever been seen when inviting patients to clinics. Some sessions have seen up to 100% of the prison’s population tested.

“Together with our work with the Hepatitis C Trust, this has made patients feel safe and comfortable about the testing – and by carrying out high intensity sessions we have been able to test those hard to reach, sometimes vulnerable patients who will not leave the wing area to participate willingly.”

The Royal College of Nursing will announce the winner of the award later this year.