National database to track drug abuse Early warning system to track abuse

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The Independent Online
A NATIONAL early warning system to track the spread of heroin throughout Britain is being planned by the nation's drug tsar.

Under a new system, doctors, drug agencies and the police will provide regular bulletins to a central database of new heroin users, registered addicts and people going into treatment clinics. This system will allow the authorities to pinpoint new clusters of heroin abuse and monitor the success of treatment programmes.

The proposals being considered by Keith Hellawell, the UK drugs co-ordinator, are in response to a decision by the Government to make tackling heroin a priority.

Mr Hellawell told The Independent yesterday he was concerned some teenagers weresmoking heroin without realising that it is a dangerous, addictive drug.

He said one of the greatest hurdles in dealing with the heroin abuse that is spreading to many parts of Britain is a lack of information. The drugs tsar said he was impressed by the Australian system in which heroin deaths - running at 10 times the rate of Britain - are announced daily.

Nearly 200 people died from heroin overdoses in England and Wales in 1997. In Scotland, 50 people died from taking heroin in 1998 and there have been 30 fatal overdoses this year to date.

Home Office research has identified a new wave of heroin abuse in many smaller cities, towns and rural areas.

Proposals for an advanced warning system are to be discussed in Mr Hellawell's annual report this month.

He said: "We feel that there could be more information, which would help us and the agencies to react quicker and to prevent the development of some of these clusters [of heroin abuse]. We are looking for systems that can be more helpful, not just for early warnings but to [allow us to] look at how successful some of the treatments are.

"It will help us assess how successful our policies are to get more people into treatment. In a way it may well appear it is getting worse by its success because we want more people to access treatment."

Currently, doctors report to health authorities the numbers and ages of new addicts and people going back to register for help after six months. The "regional drug misuse database" is published twice a year by the Department of Health.

An improved database, as proposed by Mr Hellawell, would contain more details, which would be published more frequently, and include information on levels of treatment given to addicts.

Mr Hellawell also expressed concern about the growing number of young people starting to take heroin. He said: "The overall age of addicts has come down. You get dealers selling to young people a joint of brown heroin to smoke. Many young people we find don't know what that is, particularly when it is used around the recreational scene, the dance scene. It breaks down their resistance to get involved in hard drugs.

"Many young people I have spoken to wouldn't regard themselves as involved in drugs if they smoked cannabis but would describe junkies as those who shoot up and inject themselves, particularly with heroin. Some of them are being seduced into smoking this stuff in the first instance, not necessarily knowing what it is."

He acknowledged that there was an "insufficient number" of treatment places for young people, but argued that millions of pounds were being invested to improve the situation over the next few years.