Multiple harms faced by Azerbaijani prisoners

Burden of substance use disorders, mental illness, and correlates of infectious diseases among soon-to-be released prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Azbel L, Wickersham JA, Wegman MP, Polonsky M, Suleymanov M, Ismayilov R, Dvoryak S, Rotberga S, Altice FL. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015 Mar 19. pii: S0376-8716(15)00136-2. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.02.034. [Epub ahead of print]

Background: Despite low HIV prevalence in the South Caucasus region, transmission is volatile. Little data are available from this region about addiction and infectious diseases among prisoners who transition back to communities.

Methods: A nation-wide randomly sampled biobehavioral health survey was conducted in 13 non-specialty Azerbaijani prisons among soon-to-be-released prisoners. After informed consent, participants underwent standardized health assessment surveys and testing for HIV, hepatitis B and C, and syphilis.

Results: Of the 510 participants (mean age=38.2 years), 11.4% were female, and 31.9% reported pre-incarceration drug injection, primarily of heroin. Prevalence of HCV (38.2%), HIV (3.7%), syphilis (3.7%), and HBV (2.7%) was high. Among the 19 HIV-infected inmates, 14 (73.7%) were aware of their HIV status, 12 (63.2%) were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART), and 5 (26.3%) had CD4<350cells/mL (4 of these were on ART). While drug injection was the most significant independent correlate of HCV (AOR=12.9; p=0.001) and a significant correlate of HIV (AOR=8.2; p=0.001), both unprotected sex (AOR=3.31; p=0.049) and working in Russia/Ukraine (AOR=4.58; p=0.008) were also correlated with HIV.

Conclusion: HIV and HCV epidemics are concentrated among people who inject drugs (PWIDs) in Azerbaijan, and magnified among prisoners. A transitioning HIV epidemic is emerging from migration from high endemic countries and heterosexual risk. The high diagnostic rate and ART coverage among Azerbaijani prisoners provides new evidence that HIV treatment as prevention in former Soviet Union (FSU) countries is attainable, and provides new insights for HCV diagnosis and treatment as new medications become available. Within prison evidence-based addiction treatments with linkage to community care are urgently needed.

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Editor’s notes: This is an important study describing prevalence of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C among a prison population in Azerbaijan. The importance of the study stems from the need to monitor infections among a highly vulnerable population of prisoners. While the study does not report on current injecting drug use among the population, a third of the sample reported injecting drugs prior to their detention and will need support with their injecting drug use while in prison. This will include the provision of opioid substitution therapy and needle-syringe programmes.  This study highlights the vulnerability of prisoners to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C and the need for harm reduction in prisons. At the same time, the study also highlights other adverse health outcomes relating to drug use or being in prison in terms of poor mental health outcomes among the sample. It illustrates an association between a measure of anxiety disorder and HIV infection. The strengths of this study lie in the large sample that were recruited from a broad range of prison facilities across the country, increasing the representativeness of the findings to all people living in prisons. Findings suggest an association between HIV infection and condomless sex, as well as a history of working in Russia and Ukraine. This suggests the potential for transmission of HIV across the region and points to the potential for sexual transmission of HIV in a region where transmission has been historically driven by injecting drug use. Findings contribute to the growing evidence for the urgent need for hepatitis C virus (HCV) treatment and increased access to needle-syringe programmes and opioid substitution therapy within prisons and communities in the region.  The high adherence among prisoners to HIV treatment demonstrates the provision of HCV treatment to the population is entirely feasible. Previous evidence from Russia has illustrated the difficulties for people living in prisons in maintaining HIV treatment post-release and this study underscores the need for support to facilitate the integration of individuals into harm reduction programmes including HIV treatment in community settings post-release. 

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