Every dollar spent on Australia's needle and syringe programs (NSPs) saves state and federal budgets four dollars by preventing life-threatening infections, according to research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

UNSW's National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR) found that the 30 million needles and syringes distributed every year in Australia since 2000 have directly prevented more than 32,000 cases of HIV infection and close to 100,000 cases of hepatitis C, representing a saving in healthcare costs of almost $1.3 billion.

The findings were released in the report, Return on Investment 2: Evaluating the cost-effectiveness of needle and syringe programs in Australia, commissioned by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing.

Led by Associate Professor David Wilson, the NCHECR team used a range of clinical, behavioural and economic data to analyse how effective NSPs have been in preventing the life-threatening HIV infections and hepatitis C, which are easily transmitted when injecting drug users do not have access to sterile injecting equipment.

Associate Professor Wilson said: "After more than two decades of successful operation, NSPs remain a cornerstone of Australia's HIV prevention strategy and a primary reason why we have largely contained the epidemic in this country.

"Additionally, Australia's NSPs have proven to be a foundation for preventing transmission of the more infectious hepatitis C virus.

"This study provides strong evidence to suggest that increased spending should be invested in expanding NSPs. Not only would it significantly reduce health burdens but it will ultimately save Australian taxpayers substantial amounts of money," he said.

From 2000 to 2009, needle and syringe programs cost a total of $243 million. The national NSP costs are made up of nearly 1,000 sites around the country, including outlets, clinics, pharmacies and vending machines, which distribute sterile injecting equipment.

"As well as the health care savings, needle and syringe programs have given us substantial gains in quality and length of life in Australia," said the study's health economist Dr Jonathan Anderson.

"The infections prevented by the program led to Australians gaining 140,000 extra Disability Adjusted Life Years, meaning people lived in better health for longer," he said.

The report indicates that an additional 50 percent increase in distribution of sterile injecting equipment could lead to optimal results, yielding a further 37 percent decrease in HIV and 23 percent decrease in hepatitis C cases over the next 10 years.

To see the report go to the website