Drug tests `threaten Aids virus study'

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The Independent Online
A plan to test prisoners at random for drugs threatens to undermine the largest study yet into the spread of HIV within British jails, one of the researchers said yesterday.

Dr Sheila Gore, a statistician at the Medical Research Council's Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, said a clause in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act permitting urine tests on inmates could alienate prisoners and have a damaging effect on a voluntary screening programme for HIV, timed to begin within the next few weeks.

She fears that prisoners may be reluctant to take part in the voluntary HIV study because of the punitive nature of the drug tests, where failure to provide a urine sample could lead to an increased prison sentence. ``I'm concerned that HIV surveillance in prisons will be thrown off course. My worry is that we won't get a good enough response to the survey.''

Dr Gore and scientists from the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre at Colindale north-west London, plan to offer saliva tests for HIV to thousands of prisoners in England and Wales in order to estimate the extent of infection. The researchers wouldlike at least 80 per cent of the prisoners to take part, but Dr Gore said: ``It's going to be much harder to do the sort of studies that we've done in Scotland in a climate of random urine testing for drugs.''

Similar studies in Scottish prisons have had ``very good cooperation from prisoners because of a climate of trust and acceptance'', Dr Gore said. This has led to a far better understanding of HIV prevalence in prisons north of the border than in England and Wales. Voluntary testing at Barlinnie jail, Glasgow, for example, involved 92 per cent of the 1,073 inmates. Only nine were HIV positive.

The Prison Service for England and Wales said that at any one time in the constantly changing prison population of about 49,000 there are around 35 prisoners who are known to be infected with HIV.

The Prison Reform Trust believes the true figure could be 10 times greater.