USERS of a commonly prescribed drug to treat anxiety and depression have been warned of its addictive and potentially fatal effects after a report revealed soaring misuse rates and identified it as a factor in 31% of all drug-related deaths.
The National Drug-Related Deaths Index, co-ordinated by the Health Research Board (HRB), also shows drug-related deaths in which benzodiazepines were implicated increased from a total of 65 in 1998 to 88 in 2007.
North Dublin had the highest rate of death at four cases per 100,000 population, followed by the southern area at 3.1 cases.
The report also reveals a huge increase in the number of cases seeking treatment for misuse of the popular prescription sedative.
The latest HRB figures show that cases treated for problem benzodiazepine use increased from 1,054 in 2003 to 1,719 in 2008 — a 63% increase.
Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs legitimately used to treat a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and seizures.
While they are considered safe for short-term use, there is a risk of overuse, abuse and dependence when used for longer periods.
Almost all deaths where benzodiazepines were implicated involved the use of more than one substance.
The substances most frequently implicated in death alongside benzodiazepines were alcohol and opiates.
HRB senior researcher Dr Suzi Lyons called for greater awareness among prescribers and users of the potentially fatal effects of benzodiazepines when used with other substances.
“An overdose of benzodiazepines can cause respiratory depression, coma and death,” said Dr Lyons, who pointed out that very few deaths were reported from taking the drug on its own.
And, she said, while the actual number of cases under 18 years of age was small, an increasing proportion of both new and returning cases between 2003 and 2008 were in this age group.
The study, using the HRB’s National Drug Treatment Reporting System, shows that just 1% of cases were under 18 years of age in 2003 but, by 2008, it had risen to 13%.
“This has implications for health promotion and drug awareness campaigns, as well as service provision for this vulnerable group,” she said.
Tony Geoghegan, the director of Merchants Quay Ireland — a voluntary organisation for homeless people and drug users — said there was a huge black market in benzodiazepines because of a shortage of opiates.
Mr Geoghegan said people tended to mix drugs — if they are taking heroin or cocaine, they are also taking benzodiazepines and may be drinking alcohol as well.
“The message must be got out there of the danger of mixing benzodiazepines with other drugs and for people not to take drugs while on their own,” he said.
The HRB figures also show that twice as many men died as a result of misuse of benzodiazepines than women in the period 1998 to 2007, with the proportion highest in the younger age group.
More than half (54%) of women who died from misusing the drug were over the age of 40, compared to over a quarter (27%) of men.
And while the actual number of people reporting benzodiazepine as their main problem drug is small — increasing from 76 in 2003 to 167 in 2008, there has been an increase of 120% over the period.
Almost two-thirds reported using benzodiazepines on a daily basis and most cases treated for problem use had been using the drugs for up to six years.
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