Addicts risk death using prescription epilepsy pill
An estimated 6,000 users have died from drug use over the past decade
Ireland's addict population is latching on to a powerful prescription painkiller that caused 33 deaths in Britain in 2014 and may have already killed users here.
The drug, Pregabalin, marketed as Lyrica, is used to treat severe pain disorders and, in some cases, epilepsy.
A report by the National Drug Treatment Centre in Dublin last week warned that the drug is turning up in increasing numbers of urine tests carried out on the 10,000 or so recipients of the opiate 'substitute' methadone. Pregabalin is only one of many drugs found in the samples taken from methadone patients who are supposed to be free of other addictive drugs.
The report on Pregabalin found: "Other drugs detected in the Pregabalin positive patients were opiates (31.8pc), cocaine (11.4pc), benzodiazepines (79.5pc), and cannabis (77.8pc). Our study confirms that Pregabalin abuse is taking place amongst the addiction services population. We believe that misuse of this prescription drug is a serious emerging issue which should be monitored carefully."
Side effects of the drug include: "Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, throat, or tongue; unusual hoarseness); burning, numbness, or tingling; chest pain; confusion; fast or irregular heartbeat; fever, chills, or persistent sore throat; inability to control urination; loss of coordination; memory loss; muscle aches, pain, tenderness, or weakness."
Despite spending around €250m a year to treat 10,000 of the country's opiate addicts with methadone, the figures show there is no sign of a decline in the number of multiple, or 'poly', drug users still receiving the 'treatment'.
In the UK, methadone is supplied only for a limited period, usually only a month, but in Ireland addicts are prescribed methadone for decades - while most go on abusing other opiates.
There is also a very marked difference in cost here and in the UK for prescribing methadone. The National Health Service estimates that a year's supply of the 'substitute' costs around €5,000, whereas here the average cost would appear to be around €25,000 per addict per annum.
The National Drug Centre in Pearse Street, central Dublin, had to devise a method for screening Pregabalin as there was no method available until 2014. It is suspected that part of the reason addicts receiving methadone were also taking Pregabalin up to then was because it was not previously detectable in their urine samples.
The centre's report adds: "The potential dangers of Pregabalin should not be underestimated. In 2013 there were 33 drug-related deaths in England and Wales where Pregabalin was mentioned on the death certificate. Some eight out of 10 patients attending a Belfast hospital following recreational Pregabalin abuse presented with seizures (five being 'first' seizures).
"We have seen that Pregabalin has significant abuse potential and is an attractive drug to opioid-dependant users. We have confirmed that this drug is being misused by some addiction treatment patients. There is no information as yet in the public domain as to the numbers of deaths related to Pregabalin in Ireland; however, we believe misuse of this prescription drug is a serious emerging issue which should be monitored."
The report comes alongside the issuing of details of drug-related deaths between 2004 and 2013, which shows a total of 6,002 deaths. Of these deaths, 3,519 were due to poisoning and 2,483 were due to simple overdose.
Some 60pc of deaths were of 'poly' drug users. Alcohol was involved in 35pc of deaths, with alcohol alone responsible for 15pc of deaths.
The annual drugs death index also found over two-fifths (43pc) of those who died owing to poisoning had a history of mental health illness.
Despite the high level of drug abuse, the HSE figures show that alcohol is still the biggest abused drug.
The annual deaths index supports Health Minister Leo Varadkar's clampdown on the issue of misuse, stating: "About 1.3 million people in Ireland are drinking in a hazardous way, with 200,000 dependent on alcohol. Related harms, in terms of health, social care and crime, cost the State around €3.6bn."
Around 1,000 people die from excessive alcohol consumption each year, the report adds.