Horrifying research into Britain's injecting drug users

Horrifying research out today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggest that one in 50 and one in 80 adults between the ages of 15 and 44 in London, Liverpool, and Brighton is an injecting drug user. And users are more likely to die of their habit in Brighton, finds the study.

The UK's current drug strategy aims to double the numbers of problem drug users in treatment programmes. But the research suggests that the figures on which this is based are flawed, and that considerably more effort will be needed to reach the targets.

The researchers investigated patterns of injecting drug use among 15 to 44 year olds in the three cities for the year 2000-01. Their information sources included community surveys, specialist drug treatment centres, referral after police arrest, syringe exchange schemes, and admissions for emergency cares. In London, they concentrated on 12 boroughs, comprising about a third of the entire city and 60% of inner London.

The authors concluded that rates of injecting drug use among 15 to 44 year olds are 2% in Brighton (2,300), 1.5% in Liverpool (2,900), and 1.2% (16,700) in the 12 London boroughs studied, with a rate of 1.7% in inner London. The prevalence of the problem in outer London was less than a third that in inner London.

The authors note that routine statistics on problem drug use do not accurately reflect the actual prevalence in the population.

Based on these rates the authors calculate that between one in 50 and one in 80 adults aged 15 to 44 in Liverpool, London and Brighton is an injecting drug user. That makes the habit among young adults as common as diabetes, and more common than many other chronic diseases, they say.

Significantly more men than women were injecting drug users and the proportion of users was higher at the upper end of the age spectrum, between the ages of 30 and 44.

The figures also showed that fewer than one in four injecting drug users was in a treatment programme, with a rate of only in six (16%) in Brighton.

And despite the five million syringes distributed every year in London alone, the overall figures suggest that one syringe is handed out approximately every two days. But most users inject twice a day, say the authors. The shortage of sterile needles increases the risk of disease spread, particularly hepatitis C, rates of which are higher in the three cities than many other areas in England and Wales.

And in Brighton, not only was the prevalence of injecting drug use higher than in either London or Liverpool, but so too was the rate of death from heroin overdose at 2%: overall: around 1% of injecting drug users die from an overdose every year.

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