Region’s drug-death toll remains high

The number of drug-related deaths in the Borders has remained at one of the highest levels in the region since figures were first recorded in 1996, despite a recent fall.

According to the General Register Office for Scotland, eight Borderers suffered drug-related fatalities in 2011, just one less than the peak of nine in 2010.

In the eight cases last year, diazepam, methadone and heroin/morphine were the most commonly-found substances in the victims’ systems, although the statistics do not indicate what drug was the main cause of death.

Commenting on the results, Dr Mike Kehoe, NHS Borders consultant psychiatrist in addictions, said: “These figures highlight the ongoing tragedy of young lives cut short by drugs. Sadly, many of these people will have been in contact with drug misuse services at some time.

“Rehabilitation from drug misuse can be a long and complicated journey, and people need a lot of support, not only from our services, but from family and friends. So when someone dies, even though they have taken steps to change their life, it is all the more devastating for them and for their family and friends,” he added. “This is why we need to do whatever we can to reduce the risk of people dying from accidental overdoses.”

Of the eight deaths in this region during 2011, two were put down to accidental poisoning and the remainder classed as “undetermined intent”.

In Scotland as a whole, the number of drug-related deaths increased in 2011 to a record high of 584, almost 100 up on the previous year.

In an attempt to prevent accidental overdose fatalities, NHS Borders has issued 144 Naloxone kits and trained 175 individuals to use them, many family or friends of drug users.

The drug, an injectable antidote to opiates such as heroin, is only supplied to those deemed to be at risk of an overdose. It temporarily reverses the effects of an overdose and keeps the person breathing, allowing time for emergency services to arrive.

The local NHS board has said that the Take Home Naloxone programme would only impact on drug-death figures significantly if a “necessary proportion” of drug users had access to the kits, which it says it has achieved.

Dr Kehoe said: “The success of the Take Home Naloxone programme in the Borders shows that we are reaching a large number of people who want to stop using drugs, and we know that the kits have been used on eight occasions between August 2011 and March 2012.

“That is potentially eight people who have another chance at life.”

Last month Borders MSP John Lamont voiced his concerns about the number of overdose kits distributed in this region.

He commented: “Many people will be shocked at the sheer number of Naloxone kits that are being handed out in the Borders. For every 1,000 problem drug users in the Borders, we are handing out 248 of these kits, which is significantly higher than every other region of Scotland.

The member for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire added: “This drug will encourage heroin users to test their limits as they know that there will be a fall-back should they overdose. This is not helping the situation and will encourage increased drug use.”

An NHS Borders statement denied this was the case, stating that there was no evidence to show that heroin users with the kits increased their drug use, adding that the Naloxone could trigger “unpleasant withdrawal symptoms”.

Local drug treatment services feature inpatient and outpatient services, including supporting detox at home.

In the Borders, the Alcohol and Drug Partnership delivers a two-pronged approach to preventing harm related to drug misuse, prevention of drug use and provision of treatment and recovery services. Prevention work focuses on increasing alcohol and drugs awareness in children and young people through education in schools and through the voluntary sector agency Face-to-Face and Up2U, which deliver peer education work.

A lot of work is also done to increase awareness of the dangers and implications of new drugs, especially so called “legal highs”.