West Belfast GP Dr George O’Neill made the stark warning
Drug users are dying by accident by mixing illegal and prescription drugs which is stopping them from breathing, a leading GP has warned.
Dr George O’Neill has called for urgent action to address Northern Ireland’s spiralling drug abuse crisis.
However, he has raised concerns that a Department of Health plan to try and tackle addiction will fail due to a lack of funds.
“A lot of people are sharing drugs and quite often they take two, three or even four different drugs together,” said Dr O’Neill.
“They’re mixing prescription drugs with illegal drugs and each one of them depresses the breathing by a little bit and when they’re working together, they stop the breathing completely.
“They don’t realise what is happening, they just lose consciousness, stop breathing and that’s it.
“GPs are only too aware that this is going on and we do try and warn patients about the dangers and tell them that mixing drugs can be lethal.
“We need more investment in treatments and we certainly need more investment over all in mental health services.
“The Health Minister has developed a strategy which will hopefully address the issues, but unfortunately there is no mention of funding.”
His comments come after official statistics revealed that 56% of drug-related deaths in 2019 involved three or more drugs.
Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) have laid bare the emerging drug abuse crisis here, with 191 drug-related deaths registered in Northern Ireland in 2019.
The 2019 total is more than double the 84 drug-related deaths recorded a decade ago.
Of the 191 deaths recorded in 2019, 128 had an opioid mentioned on the death certificate.
Heroin and morphine were the most frequently mentioned opioids in 2019, connected to 46 drug-related deaths - up from 40 in 2018 and the highest number on record.
Drug-related deaths involving cocaine increased from 28 in 2018 to 37 in 2019 - also the highest level on record.
Diazepam was listed in 36.6% of all drug-related deaths in 2019, a decrease from previous years. Drug-related deaths involving pregabalin, however, have risen consistently since its first appearance in these statistics in 2013.
The annual number of deaths involving this controlled substance rose from 9 in 2016 to 54 in 2018 to 77 in 2019, appearing in 40.3% of all drug-related deaths.
The statistics also indicate that there are notably higher numbers of drug-related deaths in areas of deprivation across Northern Ireland.
People living in the most deprived areas are five times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those in the least deprived areas, according to the report.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “My Department is overseeing the development a new alcohol and drug strategy for Northern Ireland aimed at preventing and addressing the harms related to all substance use.
“A consultation process on the draft strategy has recently completed and work has now begun on analysing responses.
“Once this is complete my officials will work with key stakeholders, including service users and their families, to finalise the strategy.
“I will continue to work with Ministerial colleagues and Departments to address the underlying causes of substance misuse, such as poverty, homelessness and loneliness.
“It is only by working holistically across all these issues that we will truly create the conditions to help prevent both alcohol and drug related deaths.”