Soaring heroin abuse in Northern Ireland a train wreck coming down the tracks: MLA
The number of hospital admissions caused by heroin poisoning in Northern Ireland has risen by almost 30%, new figures show.
A rise in the total number of users was blamed for the increase.
One doctor proposed a greater focus on filling gaps in abusers' lives like unemployment.
SDLP MLA John Dallat, who obtained the figures through a Freedom of Information request, said it represented a "train wreck" waiting to happen.
West Belfast GP Michael McKenna said: "It is becoming more prevalent so it is easier to obtain."
In 2015/16 a total of 61 cases were recorded. By 2017/18, that had risen to 79, and increase of 29.5%. The Royal Victoria and Mater hospitals in Belfast admitted the greatest numbers. Antrim Area Hospital also recorded admissions.
Mr Dallat added: "The increase in heroin addiction cases is most worrying and represents a train wreck coming down the tracks with no return for many of those diagnosed with this deadly addiction.
"Based on my own enquiries, I understand this deadly business is being conducted by ruthless people with no regard for anyone and motivated only by creating addiction among people who may already be on drugs.
"If this pattern is to continue there is every reason to believe all health trusts will experience an increase in admissions for heroin sufferers while the situation in the Belfast area will, undoubtedly, become much more serious as the availability of this poisonous substance reaches more and more vulnerable people."
Dr McKenna said many users ended up homeless because their lives were chaotic.
He added: "Ultimately they become pariahs and they are cast out by family and friends."
Dr McKenna's practice is on the Falls Road. He said people often found solace with groups of other users and were turning to heroin to fill gaps and needs in their lives.
He said: "If you find how to fill that gap then you are part-way to answering your heroin problem."
In Portugal all drugs have been decriminalised and users are given purpose and found employment.
Michael Owen, the Public Health Agency (PHA) drug and alcohol lead, said: "Drug misuse is sadly an all-too-common issue.
"The reasons for people taking drugs are complex and varied, and drug misuse can affect anyone.
"Whilst heroin and other opiates are used by a small proportion of the population, the risks for those misusing the drug are significant, both in the short term and long term.
"The primary risk factors when using drugs include taking too much of a substance; taking a substance over an extended period of time or 'bingeing'; mixing drugs with other drugs and/or alcohol; and, using drugs on your own.
"The PHA would strongly advise that the only way to avoid all risks is to not take any drugs which have not been prescribed for you by your doctor."
The Health & Social Care Board (HSCB) said it recognises the "devastating and debilitating impact" that drug and alcohol addiction has on people's lives.
"The HSCB is working closely with the Department of Health, Public Health Agency, trusts, primary care and a range of partners to develop and enhance access to a range of alcohol and drug related specialist support services," it said.