Surge in use of jab to counter heroin overdoses in Northern Ireland
Revelation sparks calls for action on drug scourge
The use of an emergency drug to saves lives in the event of a heroin overdose has more than doubled in the past three years, it can be revealed.
Figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph via a Freedom of Information request show that Naloxone was administered by paramedics 895 times in the last financial year.
Over the same period three years ago, it was used on 437 occasions.
This has sparked calls for urgent action to tackle the growing heroin problem in Northern Ireland.
Naloxone is used in emergencies to counteract the effects of an opiate overdose.
It was first supplied to the health services here in 2011, and take-home Naloxone kits are also supplied to addicts.
Since April 2016 the drug has been used by the Ambulance Service more than 2,000 times, saving scores of lives.
Its use is most prevalent in the Belfast Trust area, which last year accounted for 54% of all cases.
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan said a new strategy is needed to deal with the heroin problem.
"These figures, while extremely worrying, tell us nothing that we don't already know. There is a growing heroin problem sweeping Northern Ireland which desperately needs urgent cross-departmental attention," he said.
"It is critically important that upon the restoration of power-sharing, any future Health Minister work with Executive colleagues to deliver a Drugs and Alcohol Strategy that is up to date, fit for purpose and recognises the scope of the problem we face here."
The increasing use of heroin is reflected in PSNI drug seizure statistics.
A total of 600 grams of opiate powder was seized by police in 2018/17. Ten years ago it was just over 106 grams.
Needle exchange programmes have also been set up at pharmacies to give users access to clean needles.
In order for needles to be dispose of safely, "sharps bins" have been installed in parks and other public places.
Earlier this year Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said facilities where people can safely inject themselves with heroin - so-called consumption rooms - should be considered in order to reduce overdoses.
Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said the increased use of Naloxone was "concerning".
She added: "I recently wrote to the Department of Health regarding the 18-week delay in prescribing heroin addicts methadone, and support the Chief Medical Officer's call for the introduction of consumption rooms, where addicts could receive support with the health and well-being aspects of their addiction.
"In addition, I will shortly be hosting an event in Stormont for Extern, which will raise awareness among MLAs on the alarming rise in heroin use.
"It is vital we come together to tackle it, and put in place measures to reduce its impact on health and public safety."
The Department of Health said its policy is to "reduce the harms caused by drug misuse".
"The department continues to work collectively with the health and social care system and our partners in the PSNI and criminal justice system to reduce the supply of, and demand for, illicit drugs, to raise awareness of their potential harm, and to provide treatment for those who need additional support," it said.
"All five Health & Social Care Trusts provide a range of support and treatment options for individuals misusing opioids.
"The community addiction teams based in each trust area provide specialist assessment and intervention for individuals dependent on alcohol and/or drugs, including illegal substances and prescription medication.
"The substitute prescribing teams aim to support individuals to reduce and stop illicit opioid and other drug use and reduce the harms associated with this.
"Individuals seeking help and support in relation to heroin or other drugs are encouraged to make contact with the services that are currently available, where teams will support individuals through harm reduction methods and to access treatment pathways.
"More information on services can be found at www.drugsandalcoholni.info The cases that come to the attention of our emergency services are obviously the most severe and complex. Naloxone saves lives when administered to reverse the effects of an overdose.
"That is why the department is working with our colleagues in the Public Health Agency to increase the availability of and access to this lifesaving medicine."