Record number of heroin users accessing help

Record number of heroin users accessing help

Additional funding was provided to ensure that service users were retained and supported in treatment.

The number of heroin users in drug treatment has reached record numbers, with almost 11,500 receiving substitute medication.

Almost 1,000 extra people were brought into treatment services across the country in the last two years, during the pandemic, including around 100 in Cork and Kerry.

The increase in Cork and Kerry is almost double that nationally, with a 20% jump in the region versus 10% elsewhere.

The growth in heroin users entering treatment and receiving either methadone or suboxone was part of a “concerted” effort by HSE addiction services, with the help of voluntary bodies.

Figures on opioid substitution treatment (OST) supplied to the Irish Examiner by the HSE show:

  • The total number on OST rose from 10,510 in 2018 to 10,580 in 2019, before jumping to 11,358 in 2020 and to 11,481 at the close of 2021;

  • The number on methadone treatment stood at 10,333 in 2018 and 10,318 in 2019, rising to 10,935 in 2020 and to 10,879 in 2021;

  • The number on suboxone (buprenorphine) rose substantially, from 177 in 2018, to 262 in 2019, jumping to 423 in 2020 and 602 in 2021.

Estimates from HSE Cork and Kerry indicate that around 100 heroin users were brought into opiate treatment during the pandemic, bringing numbers from around 500 to 600 by the close of last year.

Dr Eamon Keenan, HSE national clinical lead on addiction, said the figures showed a 9% increase in the total number on OST between 2018 and 2021.

“Within this increase there has been a 240% increase in the number of people receiving OST using buprenorphine-based products,” he said.

"One of the reasons for this substantial increase has been a concerted effort by addiction services to access this vulnerable population into treatment since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic."

He said that buprenorphine was the preferred medication to use by many clinicians as the induction process was identified to be “quicker and safer” than using methadone in circumstances where public health restrictions may have curtailed access to services.

Additional funding was provided to ensure that service users were retained and supported in treatment.

HSE head of drug and alcohol services in Cork and Kerry, David Lane, said the extra numbers brought into treatment during the pandemic, estimated at around 100 people, was “significant”.

He said they were from across the groupings and not just from the homeless population.

“It’s good that people are taking that first step and reaching out for help," he said. 

"It gives us the opportunity to offer them a range of support.

"One thing providing stabilisation and methadone, that’s really important, but there are other supports, like counselling and group support."

Commenting, Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, welcomed figures showing the numbers receiving OST had risen.

“Throughout the pandemic many NGO and State provided drug services worked tirelessly, and in partnership, to support people who use drugs to engage in treatment. The increase in people receiving Opioid Substitution Treatment is one indicator that this work has been successful.” 

A research study conducted by Dr Austin O’Carroll, clinical lead for homelessness in Dublin and Mr Duffin, said that HSE initiatives at the start of Covid restrictions cut waiting times for treatment from 12 to 14 weeks to two to three days and that homeless drug users were specifically targeted with outreach and inpatient services.

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