The number of people admitted to Ireland’s largest intensive care unit (ICU) following an overdose has risen 10-fold in the past six years. A study by doctors at the unit in the Mater hospital in Dublin shows that very few of those admitted with overdoses survive.
They say the higher fatality rate found among drug users compared with other countries may be because the adulterants used to cut cocaine in Ireland are significantly more toxic than elsewhere.
Brian O’Brien, an intensive care specialist at the Mater, said: “Not only is cocaine becoming more common but we are having an unusually high case-fatality rate. People seem to have this perception that cocaine is a reasonably safe thing and this was totally at odds with what we were seeing.”
Cocaine overdose accounted for none of the admissions to the Mater’s ICU in 2003 and there was approximately one a year for the next three years. However, by 2007 this had risen to 10 cases a year. The doctors examined all cocaine overdoses admitted from 2003 to 2007 and followed them up for two years afterwards.
Of the 19 patients admitted with cocaine toxicity, only three are still alive. Ten died in hospital while another five were dead within two years of discharge. One, who had been smuggling the drug internally, was untraceable.
O’Brien said the problem with cocaine in Ireland is likely to be what it is being mixed with. “Street level cocaine is now about 30% pure whereas it used to be 60% or 70%.”
Those overdosing were mostly men whose average age was 25, said the study, which is published in the journal Anaesthesia. Cocaine overdoses usually manifest as heart attacks or seizures.
O’Brien, who is now based in Waterford Regional hospital, said a similar level of cocaine overdoses are likely being treated all over the country. “It is not entirely a Dublin phenomenon.”
Austin Prior, head of treatment services at the Rutland Centre, an addiction treatment facility, said there is an unspoken social acceptability around cocaine. “It’s seen to be glamorous. Clients say people are dying on a weekly basis from cocaine but you only hear about it when a celebrity dies.”
Today a private ceremony will be held by the family of Katy French to mark the second anniversary of the death of the model who collapsed and later died after taking cocaine.
According to the Health Research Board, the number of deaths by poisoning in which cocaine was implicated rose from five in 1998 to 34 in 2005. The number of people presenting for treatment for cocaine use is up from 954 in 2002 to 2,643 in 2007.
One former addict, a 39-year old Dublin man, has overdosed on the drug so many times he has lost count. “I was spending about €1,500 a week.” Although clean for the past few months he is struggling to stay away from the drug. “I could have it within five minutes, it’s that easy to get it. It has destroyed my life. I’m separated, I have restricted access to my kids, I’ve lost numerous jobs. If I could wind the clock back, I’d never take drugs.”
Source: Jan Battles, The Times Online, 06/12/2009