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Call for new drug task force after 47% rise in overdose callouts in Northern Ireland

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The number of emergency call-outs for suspected drug overdoses in Northern Ireland has increased over the past three years, figures show

The number of emergency call-outs for suspected drug overdoses in Northern Ireland has increased over the past three years, figures show

The number of emergency call-outs for suspected drug overdoses in Northern Ireland has increased over the past three years, figures show

The number of emergency call-outs for suspected drug overdoses in Northern Ireland has increased over the past three years, figures show.

The NI Ambulance Service (NIAS) dealt with 1,010 calls in 2017, 1,394 a year later and 1,494 calls made by the end of November last year.

That was an increase of 47% in two years.

A charity has now called for a drugs task force, more support to be made available to vulnerable people and a safe consumption facility.

There was also a 40% increase in the number of times naloxone, which temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, was administered.

In 2017 the Ambulance Service administered the drug 628 times. It was used 873 times in 2018 and 876 times last year.

The Simon Community, which works with the homeless, said the figures were only a "brief glimpse into the drugs crisis" in Northern Ireland as other organisations also handle drug emergencies.

"Our experience is that those seeking support for their mental health who also have substance use issues struggle to get the support they need as they are deemed not to meet the threshold for treatment until their substance use issues are addressed," said Eoin Ryan of the Simon Community.

Dr Nigel Ruddell, medical director of the NIAS, said it had been working with the Public Health Agency and other statutory bodies to address underlying issues as well as improving emergency response times.

"The rise in the number of times our crews have administered this life-saving treatment over the past few years reflects the growing social issues we see in relation to mental health and related usage of both drugs and alcohol," he told the BBC.

Chris Rintoul, manager of Extern's drugs and alcohol consultancy service, said the charity was concerned at the number of deaths, especially in Belfast.

"We need a new approach," he added."The first thing I'd recommend is to establish a drug task force similar to that available in Scotland.

"In particular there needs to be more support for those who are homeless. We need a service like a drug consumption facility where those using drugs can be observed in a safe, sterile environment which will help prevent infections and overdoses."

The Public Health Agency is in talks to start a pilot of the nasal-spray version of naloxone.

Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw expressed her concern at the rise in serious overdose cases.

The South Belfast MLA said: "If we wish to tackle the rise in serious overdose cases we will need different and more wide-ranging services.

"In the short-term, we need to ensure that those at risk and those around them have access to naloxone, ideally through the nasal spray, to save lives.

"In the longer term, we need to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of overdose and where the support is available, as well as addressing the issues in areas such as mental health and homelessness where too many people are still living without adequate support."

Belfast Telegraph