Irregular immigrants have a very low prevalence of infectious disease, according to doctors addressing a seminar on healthcare of asylum seekers yesterday.

Preliminary results of a study carried out through the Mare Nostrum project concluded that the vast majority of sub-Saharan migrants are healthy individuals.

GU clinic data showed that HIV from the sub-Saharan population group contributed to 10 per cent of the total diagnoses of this virus while chlamydia ranked at 0.8 per cent, syphilis four per cent, and HPV 0.5 per cent.

Scabies, whose occurrence largely depends on living conditions, was particularly prevalent among this population group, with them contributing 57 per cent of all scabies infections diagnosed in the GU clinic.

GU specialist Philip Carabott, who presented the statistics, pointed out that since most asylum seekers came from Somalia, they were generally very conservative and often virgins.

His findings were echoed by doctors working on the Mare Nostrum project at Maltese open centres.

“Infectious diseases are very low in prevalence,” said Valeska Padovese, a doctor working on the project.

Data showed that while diseases like Hepatitis C were also found to be extremely low in preliminary statistics of the project, blood tests for Hepatitis B showed the migrant group had been exposed to this disease. However, it was yet uncertain whether migrants were carriers or had chronic Hepatitis B.

However, doctors pointed out that living conditions in detention centres increased the prevalence of tuberculosis among immigrants.

Although asylum seekers had a higher prevalence of TB, which was also related to poor living conditions, there was no spill over to the local population, Dr Maria Stella Egidi, an infectious disease specialist, said.

However, closed conditions with little ventilation in detention centres was aggravating the problem among the group locked up.

Unless a proactive approach was taken to treat the disease, TB could easily spread to the local population, consultant respiratory physician Brian Farrugia warned.

“In Malta, they are literally in prison,” he said, pointing out that different screening criteria was needed in Malta compared with Italy, where immigrants are detained for only a few days.

Locally, all migrants arriving by boat undergo a chest X-ray to check for TB before they enter detention, and right before they are released. Some time ago, asylum seekers who were diagnosed with TB before release were being kept in detention to ensure they were taking their medication.

“So after spending a number of months in detention, they were being kept for a further six months to make sure they took their medicine,” Dr Farrugia said.

However, following intervention together with the Jesuit Refugee Service, this red tape was removed.

“TB is not a valid reason to delay release from detention,” Dr Farrugia said, pointing out that every patient had to be treated with dignity.

Treatment, the doctor said, was vital to contain the problem from spreading. Locally, everybody, regardless of legal status, was entitled to free treatment, which was important to overcome the situation, he said.

Mare Nostrum is an EU-financed project promoted through the Maltese Justice Ministry, the Italian Interior Ministry, the Italian National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty, and the International Organisation on Migration.

The local Health Ministry is also involved in the project through the Health Promotion Department and the Migrant Health Unit.

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