Anthrax deaths expose drug addicts’ plight

A spate of 13 deaths among heroin users whose drugs were contaminated with anthrax has highlighted how addicts are “demonised” and struggle to get treatment, according to experts.
Anthrax deaths expose drug addicts' plightSince the contaminated batch was first detected in the UK last Christmas, almost 50 addicts have been admitted to hospital, while 13 have died.

Anthrax-related heroin deaths are extremely rare, and in the past were unheard of in the UK. There has been only one known previous outbreak among heroin users, and that took place in Norway in 2000.

The vast majority of the deaths in this new outbreak have occurred in Scotland, predominantly in Glasgow. Several heroin users have also contracted anthrax poisoning in England, and so far one person has died. There has also been one fatality in Germany and nine in Portugal, although the cause of these deaths is disputed.

Drugs counsellors have told the guardian of their frustration that, as the crisis mounted, they were unable to help worried addicts switch to alternative drugs, such as methadone, because of lengthy waiting lists.

“Often, if we have a health scare among drug users, the advice we give is to use drugs in safer ways. For instance with HIV, we encouraged people to use needle exchanges,” said Gareth Balmer, project manager of Addaction Dundee, a support centre. “But this time around, the message we were getting from government was to tell people to stop using heroin, which was as much use as a chocolate teapot.

“If we could have got people access to methadone or Subutex [another heroin substitute] very quickly, it wouldn’t have been a ridiculous message, but we were looking at six-month waiting lists and, in some parts of Scotland, a year.” Balmer said the situation had “brought home how behind we are in helping people access that treatment”.

“Heroin users don’t use heroin for fun; it’s a physical and psychological dependency. We have a constant supply of people who would like to access methadone, but we felt as drug workers it was insulting people to say: ‘There’s possibly anthrax in your heroin; my advice is to stop using.’ I was surprised I didn’t get punched in the face.”

Anthrax infection can be cured if treated early enough. Common signs of infection are redness and swelling around the injection area. The scale of the outbreak is still being assessed, with checks being conducted at the top-secret Porton Down laboratory in Wiltshire, where biological and chemical weapons are tested.

How the anthrax found its way into the heroin is still open to question. Some addicts claimed it was part of a plot by shadowy government agencies to rid the country of drug users. Others speculated that it was the work of the Taliban, who control opium production in Afghanistan, where more than 90% of the UK’s heroin comes from.

However, guidance issued to investigating police officers, states that there are two likely causes: “Heroin could be naturally contaminated after harvesting from contact with soil in an area where an animal had died from anthrax at some point, or by being stored or transported in contact with animal products, especially skins, from an animal that had died from anthrax,” the guidance states.

“The second option is that the heroin was contaminated at some stage during the cutting process… Of feasible agents, animal products are the most likely, and of these, bone meal would be suitable for cutting and has been associated with cases of cutaneous anthrax in people handling it in the past.”

But despite the unprecedented number of deaths, the issue has been largely ignored. “Media indifference on this issue, considering the number of fatalities that have occurred, has been disappointing, but not surprising,” said Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, an organisation that tracks trends in drug use. “These people are stigmatised and demonised. There is a feeling they are blameworthy and less deserving of public concern and attention.”

The deaths have refocused attention on the 300,000 heroin users in the UK, around 2% of whom will die this year as a result of their drug use. They have drawn comparisons with an earlier health crisis that plagued the addict community when a batch of heroin was infected with botulism.

Experts note that the price of heroin has fallen significantly in the past year, possibly as a result of bumper harvests in Afghanistan. Currently a £10 bag sold on the streets of Glasgow will contain 0.2g of heroin, compared with 0.1g a year ago – although prices have started to rise again as larger quantities of the drug are diverted to China and eastern Europe.

Balmer warned that the crisis could yet reignite. “Our worry is that the infected heroin will be buried somewhere until the heat dies down. It happened with the botulism scare. Somebody could still be holding on to it until we’ve all forgotten about it.”


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