Background: Global prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) is estimated to be around 3% with approximately 170 million people affected. In Australia, and in many other resource rich countries, injecting drug use is the single most important risk factor for acquiring HCV, with around a third of diagnoses occurring in women. This study aims to assess gender differences in hepatitis C antibody prevalence and associated risk behaviours amongst a large sample of PWID in Australia.
Methods: During a one to two week period in October, PWID attending selected NSP sites are invited to participate in the Australian NSP Survey. Between 1998 and 2008, approximately 16,000 individuals completed a self-administered questionnaire and provided a capillary blood sample for HIV and HCV antibody testing. We stratified our sample by time since onset of injecting and analysed the demographic characteristics, injecting behaviours and antibody test results to determine gender differences.
Results: Women were found to be at increased risk of exposure to hepatitis C in all duration of injection categories except those injecting for 17 or more years. In the early years of injecting, women also reported higher rates of receptive sharing of needles and syringe and ancillary equipment when compared to men. Last injecting heroin, methadone or buprenorphine was significantly associated with HCV antibody prevalence amongst both males and females injecting for less than 5 years.
Conclusion: Findings indicate that women are at greater risk than men of HCV infection during the early years of injection through higher rates of receptive sharing of needles and syringes and/or ancillary equipment. Our results suggest that women who are new to injecting, and Indigenous women in particular, should be identified as priority populations when developing and implementing harm reduction strategies that target people who inject illicit drugs.
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