Limerick support charity calls for better access to overdose reversing treatment as drug deaths rise

Una Burns of Novas. Photo: Oisin McHugh.

LIMERICK-BASED drugs support services charity Novas has called on the government to help make a lifesaving treatment more readily available to the public in order to reduce drug-related deaths.

Naloxone, which is injected into the muscle rather than a vein, and which can reverse or reduce the effects of opioids within two minutes, is currently available on prescription only.

According to the Novas, Naloxone has saved countless lives within communities on the margins.

The charity described as “grim” figures that were presented at the Citizens Assembly on Drugs Use last weekend by the Health Research Board (HRB), showing 409 people died nationally of a drugs overdose or drug “poisoning” (excluding alcohol) in 2020 – up from 371 and 354 in 2019 and 2018 respectively.

“Nationally, we administered Naloxone in services 26 times in 2022 and 11 times in the first quarter of 2023, and this has had a hugely positive impact in preventing death by overdose, and helps us to save lives. So no doubt the numbers would be higher without this opioid reversal,” said Una Burns, Novas Head of Policy and Communications.

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“It is an extremely low-risk administration, because it is not administrated through the vein, just through the muscle. It should be more readily available because it saves lives. We would have had higher death rates without it.”

The charity, which is headquartered in Limerick City and has services across the country, said that in 2022, two residents of McGarry House, Limerick, a low-threshold temporary accommodation centre run by the charity, died by suspected overdose.

The Mid West Community Detox programme is also run from the facility.

Julie McKenna, Novas Senior Health and Recovery Manager, said the HRB data was “deeply troubling” and additional supports are needed “to incorporate the lived experience of drug users and their families in responding to addiction and promoting recovery”.

Novas has also warned of an epidemic of addiction across Ireland to prescribed medication, including benzodiazepines.

Diazepam, first marketed as Valium, a medicine of the benzodiazepine family, is commonly used to treat a range of conditions, including anxiety, seizures, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, muscle spasms, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome.

Out of the 409 drug overdose related deaths in Ireland in 2020, 130 involved Diazepam overdose. The same number of deaths were recorded involving cocaine overdose. 139 deaths were recorded as involving methadone overdose, while there were 113 heroin “poisoning” deaths for the same period.

Calling for an “integrated, cross-departmental government response” to the latest HRB data, Ms McKenna urged for “an immediate shift on how we view and respond to addiction in Ireland”.

“It needs to be tackled from a health-led perspective, with emphasis on recovery and treatment, rather than an approach led by the criminal justice system to reduce the stigma and shame surrounding drug use and encourage people in addiction to seek support and treatment earlier.”

Ms McKenna said she believed a health-led approach to drug abuse was “fundamental” to tackling high levels of drug abuse, and would “transform how we respond to drug use in this country, which right now is wholly inadequate and simply does not work”.

Novas said it was also concerned that more and more young people, especially young females, were dying from drug overdose “and more than 50 per cent (of women) had an underlying mental health issue.”

Novas said drug use and addiction patterns have become “more complex” due to “poly-drug use of a variety of substances becoming increasingly common”.

“Dual diagnosis of mental health and addiction must be treated in tandem so that clients are not bounced from mental health to addiction services, while their health deteriorates and they remain untreated.”

The charity also called for “more targeted funding, more treatment, and post-treatment support and accommodation”