The number of new HIV infections could explode by 2030 if governments don't do more to keep drug users out of prison, new Australian-led research has found.
The research, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW, predicted HIV rates would escalate in the next 15 years unless governments acted to reduce drug-user imprisonment rates.
"Prisons can act as an incubator of HIV and hepatitis ... so infection transmission in prison is a major public health concern," lead author Kate Dolan said.
She said the way to combat the problem was to cut prison sentences for people who injected drugs in order to prevent a dramatic increase in infectious diseases.
Dolan said in Australia it was the spread of hepatitis C and hepatitis B, rather than HIV, that posed the biggest potential problem.
"Hepatitis C infection levels in Australian prisons range from 22 percent to 31 percent which are much higher than Western Europe where it ranges from 12 percent to 19 percent," said Dolan, adding that hepatitis B rates in Australian jails were also higher than comparable nations.
She said options other than locking people up needed to be considered to combat the looming problem.
"These include opioid agonist therapy, antiretroviral therapy, hepatitis B vaccination, condom distribution and sterile needle and syringe programs," she said.
Dolan added that there was very little evidence to show that "the imprisonment of injecting drug users has either a deterrent effect or assists with rehabilitation".