Drugs deaths in Northern Ireland almost trebled in a decade, report shows

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opioids were mentioned on more than half of the death certificates in 2021

By Jonathan McCambridge (PA)

The number of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland has almost trebled in a decade, according to new research.

A report, led by Professor Anne Campbell from Queen’s University in Belfast, said the number of drug misuse deaths in the region rose from 61 in 2011 to 175 in 2021.

This means that Northern Ireland has the second highest rate of drug-related deaths in the UK after Scotland.

The greatest number of these deaths occurred in the 25–34 age group, with the figure increasing from 33 in 2011 to 66 in 2021, accounting for a rate of 27 deaths per 100,000.

The report said: “Compared with the European Union, the rate of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland is more than five times that of the European average, which was 1.8 per 100,000 in 2021.”

The study said opioids were mentioned on more than half of the death certificates of drug-related deaths in 2021, with heroin/morphine the most reported.

It said that drug-related deaths involving pregabalin rose from nine in 2016 to a peak of 77 in 2019.

The report said: “Currently, the rate of deaths per 100,000 for people under 35 years in Northern Ireland is alarmingly high.

“If this trajectory continues, it is likely that we will see an increase in overdoses and drug-related deaths across all age groups.”

The report said that in 2021/22, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service attended 475 females aged 15-19 and 799 males aged 25-29 for drug-related overdoses.

In the same period, 466 young people aged 10–19 years were attended to by emergency services for an overdose.

The report has called for additional resources, including more staff, to be allocated to drug outreach service provisions, targeting young people and young adults in the short term to address the escalating crisis.

Professor Campbell, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s, said: “The prevention of each of these deaths is possible, making it essential for the Department of Health, the NI Executive, and society to prioritise this issue.”

The research was carried out by the recently implemented Drug Deaths Taskforce Northern Ireland, and conducted in collaboration with Queen’s, the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drugs Alliance (NIADA), South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Ulster University and the University of St Andrews.

Other recommendations include a call for real-time drug testing technology to be employed to detect drug use trends and link them to a more efficient alert system for individuals, communities and service providers.

It said in the past five years, there has been an increase in synthetic opioids in the United Kingdom.

The report added: “It is important for the Department of Health and Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland to monitor the emergence of these synthetic opioids, given the impact of heroin import restrictions in England and Wales.

“Additionally, the Drug and Alcohol Monitoring and Information System (DAMIS) is a valuable source of information, but it could be enhanced by conducting immediate drug testing on samples submitted for disposal by community and voluntary sector organisations.”

It also said research should look specifically at the coding of non-fatal overdoses presented at emergency departments to standardise recordings, identify trends, improve treatment, and help target future service provision.

This report is the first to look at data from a range of sources across Northern Ireland including the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, and emergency admissions data from all health and social care trusts.

Ms Campbell said: “This work will provide the evidence base for the nature and type of drug related deaths in Northern Ireland, the numbers admitted to hospital for overdose, the number of deaths that could have been avoided, and the number of young people and young adults who are being admitted with overdoses.

“This report will inform the work undertaken by the Drug Deaths Taskforce, which has recently been implemented.”

NIADA chairwoman Pauline Campbell said: “NIADA members are very much aware of the devastation caused by the increase in drug related deaths and non-fatal overdose.

“We are delighted this evidence paper has been completed and as a taskforce we can look ahead to implementing the recommendations and reducing drug related death and overdose in Northern Ireland.”

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