£1million to wean Sunderland addicts off heroin

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DRUGS to wean Wearside addicts off heroin are costing the city’s NHS more than £1million.

Sunderland medics handed out 37,353 prescriptions for methadone and buprenorphine to those trying to kick their habits during the past two years.

Figures reveal £702,350 was spent on the heroin-substitutes, while a further £381,495 was spent on a “supervised consumption scheme”, which ensures the medicines are taken in a safe and controlled environment.

Although there is currently no official register of drug users in the city, the Echo understands there are 1,010 adults engaged in drug treatment programmes.

Sunderland health bosses argue the money is vital to ensure crime levels are kept down and life-threatening diseases like HIV are under control.

Nonnie Crawford, director of public health for Sunderland, said: “It’s important that methadone and other heroin substitutes are given as part of an overall programme of supportive care as this gives users the best chance of becoming drug free.

“A variety of treatment and support services are available in Sunderland, from detoxification and rehabilitation to counselling and support to address underlying issues such as education, training and employment, housing, or debt management.

“The positive benefits of substitute treatment on society include reducing crime levels, reducing death by overdose, reduction of blood-borne viruses, reduction in drug-related needles and syringes in public places and offering greater support for users to rebuild their lives.”

Since the beginning of last year, Sunderland City Council has discovered 211 discarded needles and drug-related paraphernalia, including silver foil, spoons, needle pans, plastic bottle halfs, known as bongs, glue bags and bottles.

Councillor James Blackburn, cabinet member for city services, said “Needles are then disposed of by a specialist contractor and the location of where they were found is logged to identify any potential problem areas so the appropriate preventative action can be taken.”

Addicts coming off heroin are usually given a prescription for methadone on a fortnightly basis, getting 26 over the period of a year.

However, some receive a more frequent prescription if their needs require it.

Ms Crawford added: “In line with National Institute Clinical Excellence (Nice) guidelines, methadone is administered to patients daily for at least the first three months of treatment, under the supervision of a doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

“The majority of users will use methadone for at least a year.”

“The cost of prescribing methadone is a standard drug tariff cost set by the Department of Health.”

WHILE heroin substitutes have proved effective, medics say they should only be taken as part of a larger “care package” programme.

We spoke to one 27-year-old Wearsider who made the decision to stop taking methadone.

“Michael” had been on daily doses of methadone for six months, but was “sick of relying on it” and decided to stop taking it.

This was a decision he made himself and began withdrawal without advice, support or supervision.

“It wasn’t long before a wave of panic about what I was doing descended over me.

“Then came the symptoms.

“At first, I just couldn’t settle and was walking around the flat, unable to sit down for any longer than a few seconds.

“From then on, it was just a downward spiral into darkness and despair.

“I kept trying to convince myself it was normal, that I had cold or flu, that it was just what should be happening.

“Then the muscle contractions began. It felt like every muscle fibre in my body was getting stretched until snapping point, the ache was tremendous, the pain indescribable.

“Again, I just tried to tell myself it would soon be over. Who was I kidding?

“The next blow arrived. This time, I was sweating uncontrollably, it was pouring out of me, stinking. My body felt dry one minute, like there wasn’t an ounce of liquid left in me. Next, I couldn’t stay off the toilet, it was now pouring out the other end of me.

“I remember trying to explain to my girlfriend how I was feeling, but the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth, I just screamed in her face.

“I knew I couldn’t let this continue. I would have done anything, and I mean anything, for the pain to stop.

“I made the call and within hours was back on methadone. Two hours later, the pain had gone, my muscles moved, my head cleared, my eyes focused and the relief was immense, it was overwhelming.

“I knew then I couldn’t give up methadone.”