Five Christmas deaths 'linked to prescription drugs'
An increase in the abuse of high strength prescription medication is thought to have led to at least five deaths in the Belfast area alone over the Christmas period.
The victims, aged from late teens to late 20s, all died suddenly over the holiday fortnight in north and west Belfast.
SDLP councillor Paul McCusker says there has also been an increase in emergency admissions for drug overdoses, with children as young as 13 using the prescription drug Lyrica, commonly prescribed to treat fibromyalgia and Xanax, a drug used to treat anxiety disorders.
Mr McCusker, who is also a nurse in Belfast's Mater hospital, said there is a batch of Xanax currently being sold on the streets of Belfast which is a higher strength than would usually be prescribed.
"As well as the five deaths there have been a number of emergency admissions that could have ended in tragedy had they not received the medical support they needed", Mr McCusker said.
"This is a time when families should be celebrating together, but here we have young people losing their lives in the most tragic and arguably preventable way.
"Despite the increase in reported deaths and hospital admissions there is still not the available treatment, an addict can't just walk off the streets and ask for help, for anyone trying to get off heroin there is still a six to seven month waiting list, people are dying on waiting lists", he added.
The PSNI have said that they are investigating at least four sudden deaths over the holiday period.
Detective Superintendent Bobby Singleton said: "The loss of a loved one is devastating for a family whatever the time of year but especially over the holiday period and our thoughts are first and foremost with those affected by these tragic deaths.
"While the cause of death is not definitively known in any of the four deaths in Belfast, the use of illicit drugs along with prescription drugs may be a factor. The vast majority of drug related deaths in Northern Ireland occur when someone has taken more than one substance including alcohol.
"We are committed to restricting the availability of illicit drugs in our communities and have had significant success throughout 2018.
"The reality however is that as long as there is demand there will be drugs on our streets", he added.