Northern Ireland news

Almost 1,000 people across north receiving treatment for opiate addiction

Substitute prescribing programs were instituted across all five health trusts more than a decade ago in order to combat the north’s increasing opiate problem, mainly heroin addiction

ALMOST 1,000 people across Northern Ireland were receiving treatment for opiate addiction last year.

New figures from the Public Health Agency shows that a total of 922 patients were using substitute prescribing services in the 2015/16 financial year.

This was a 44 per cent increase compared to the same period six years ago.

Substitute prescribing programmes were instituted across all five health trusts more than a decade ago to help combat an increasing opiate problem, mainly heroin addiction.

In the 12 months to the end of March last year, the northern trust saw the highest number of patients, with 303 people undergoing treatment, followed by the Belfast trust with 235.

The northern trust area includes Ballymena, where heroin use has been prevalent for more than two decades.

However, the Belfast trust had the highest number of patients per capita, with 66 people in every 100,000 using the scheme.

The latest figures also show increasing patient numbers across all parts of the north.

A Public Health Agency report said men aged between 30 and 34 were the biggest category of patients, with just 27 per cent of all patients female.

The figures show that more than a third of all those on programmes said they were living alone, while 14 per cent were living with a partner and children, and 6 per cent were living alone with children.

There were also 30 people receiving treatment while serving sentences in the north's prison system.

One measure of patient improvement with substitute prescribing services is comparing the injecting behaviour at the start of treatment with their latest review.

By March 31 last year, there was an 82 per cent overall reduction in the number who were injecting at the start of treatment.

However, the report also found that almost a fifth of all patients were discontinued from the programme as they failed to appear for routine appointments.

Relapsing following treatment is also an issue, with more than a fifth of those who began treatment in the 2015/16 financial year having previously used the service.

For many, the substitute prescribing programme is a long-term solution to opiate addiction – 42 per cent of patients have been enrolled for more than five years.

While in many areas patients are signed up to the scheme within weeks of being referred by a GP, others are facing extended periods on the waiting list for help.

The Irish News revealed last month that a group of Belfast families affected by opiate addiction had written to health chiefs to demand action be taken to address lengthy waiting lists for the scheme.

One woman said her brother has been waiting more than 18 months for treatment in the Belfast trust.

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