Drugs kill up to 60 users a week,say official advisers

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The Independent Online

Up to 60 people a week are dying drug-related deaths in Britain, an official report warned yesterday.

Up to 60 people a week are dying drug-related deaths in Britain, an official report warned yesterday.

As the Government promised action to cut the toll, it was warned of a new "public health time bomb" in the form of thousands of drug users infected with the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus.

The report published yesterday by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said there were between 1,076 and 2,997 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 1998. It warned that many of the deaths were being caused by viruses transmitted through injecting drugs, and that up to 228,000 people may be hepatitis C positive.

The report said it had identified an "immensely threatening public-health problem" and found that drug treatment agencies were wrongly concentrating efforts on getting drug users to take safety precautions when injecting drugs.

The council said: "The message should be put strongly and persistently 'Never inject, injection is too dangerous'."

Publication of the report comes after the recent deaths of about 40 drug users, mostly in Glasgow and north-west England, from injecting heroin contaminated with the same strain of bacteria that caused gas gangrene in the world wars.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the drugs information charity Drugscope, said the heroin deaths had underlined the dangers of injecting drugs. And he warned that the "public health time bomb" of hepatitis C infection could result in the number of virus-related deaths overtaking the number of overdose fatalities.

Hepatitis C, which can lead to cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, is highly infectious and is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact. It is very robust and may be present on needles that users believe they have sterilised.

The advisory council said: "A single careless injection can lead to someone's death as much as 30 or 40 years later. As year after year, cohort after cohort of drug users are infected with one or other or several of these viruses, so the burden piles up for the future."

The council also called for a "radical curtailment" in the number of people dying from methadone use. About 30,000 people are receiving methadone treatment in England and Wales, and the number of related deaths has increased from 371 in 1993 to 674 in 1997.

Gisela Stuart, a Health minister, said many of the council's recommendations were already being acted upon. She said £18m was being provided to health authorities in additional funding this year.