All prisons located on the two most populous islands in Fiji were recruitment sites for the study.
A Burnet Institute study of 200 prisoners in Fiji found a staggering 70 per cent had never taken an HIV test and half had never received any HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) information or condom use education.
The Health in Prisoners in Fiji Study is a world-first, looking at the health outcomes and behaviours of people in prison in the Pacific.
The study recruited 200 prisoners and re-interviewed them one month and four months post-release.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Stuart Kinner from the University of Melbourne said that although prisoners around the world are at elevated risk of contracting and transmitting infectious diseases, few studies have investigated the health of ex-prisoners.
“Despite considerable progress on HIV and STI education and prevention programs in Fiji, this research has identified a number of targets for intervention to improve the health of ex-prisoners and importantly, the communities to which they return,” Associate Professor Kinner said.
Burnet Institute researcher Rebecca Winter said the study also found the prisoners interviewed had poor knowledge about the risk factors for transmission of HIV and other STIs.
“Most participants displayed good knowledge of sexual behaviours that can increase the chances of transmitting HIV or other STIs, but poor knowledge about other methods of transmission,” she said.
Ms Winter said more than a third of the prisoners interviewed reported a high degree of psychological distress in the weeks leading up to their release from prison.
“As well as causing a lot of stress, this time is also high risk – both for prisoners and for their communities – so we should target this time period for HIV and STI education and prevention work,” she explained.
The researchers recommended providing condoms to prisoners on release as part of a pre-release education and infection control intervention, as condoms can be expensive for newly-released prisoners with little or no income.
Ms Winter will be presenting selected findings of this study at the International Congress on HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand on 20 November.
The research was conducted in collaboration with Fiji-based non-government organisation Empower Pacific and The University of Melbourne. It was funded by the Pacific Islands HIV and STI Response Fund, a multi-country grant managed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Public Health Division.