The tip of the iceberg

We have just seen the highest drug related deaths figures ever; these figures record deaths from drug poisoning, but services providers know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is an alarming increase in the numbers of people dying in treatment as a result of chronic ill health.

An aging population of people with drug and alcohol problems are becoming unwell and often receive a poor service from the NHS in relation to their wider health needs because they struggle to navigate an increasingly complex treatment system and are often treated as undeserving by both our health system and local authorities that are under extreme financial pressure.

Imagine that you are living with a completely treatable infection, that left untreated, can cause a life changing illness (for some ultimately death) and the health service said you had to wait until you developed this life threatening related illness before they would treat you. You would rightly be outraged.

This is precisely what is happening to those who have hep C despite a range of new highly effective NICE approved treatments, with few side effects, that offers a cure for hep C. Only 3-4% of people a year currently get treatment. Unless you have a hep C related illness e.g. cirrhosis you are unlikely to be treated and even then it will have to be serious enough. Many of those with hep C who are not deemed ill enough to deserve treatment do not have their condition adequately monitored.   Sadly many GP’s tell me that they monitor those with hep C who appear to be in reasonable health but then suddenly get ill very quickly, with often fatal consequences.

This discrimination happens because around 90% of those with hep C contracted it via injecting drug use. Although many will have contracted hep C many years ago and have moved away from substance misuse they are often treated with suspicion. They are perceived as unreliable patients on whom expensive treatments are not to be wasted. Alongside this those most at risk of spreading hep C to others are seen as chaotic and thus undeserving or unsuitable.

Naloxone is a drug that saves lives by temporarily reversing the effects of opioid drugs. It costs £18 or less per pack and is recommended by the ACMD, WHO, Public Health Ministers and PHE who actively support its wide provision to those at risk of opioid overdose. Despite this many local authorities, including Liverpool, are still refusing to allow treatment providers to distribute it, denying people access to a life saving tool at a time when we are seeing a significant jump in opiate related overdose deaths. Some years ago Liverpool hosted an international harm reduction conference recognising its historical place in the history of harm reduction in drugs services.

In 2014, (after over 34 years of working in the drug, alcohol and criminal justice sectors, and as Blenheim celebrated 50 years of social action) I committed both Blenheim and myself to do everything in our power to ensure that the worlds best evidenced based treatment system was not destroyed by dogma, localism and cuts to public sector finances. Whilst recovery and ending dependency are hugely important we believe harm reduction is equally as important. Some of our sector’s best work is the daily interventions to keep people alive until they are ready to change.

I was concerned then about disinvestment by local authorities in the drug and alcohol treatment sector to fund a wide range of other equally important and underfunded public health priorities. The subsequent cuts and impending disinvestment have exceeded even my most pessimistic view of the future. We face a return to a post code lottery of underfunded services, ill prepared for the next wave of alcohol and drug dependency or to support those in often chronic ill health.

This year, 2016-17, we are seeing a 30% reduction in funding for drug and alcohol services with local authorities facing often impossible challenges, in the current financial climate, in meeting even their statutory responsibilities. With the ring fence coming off the public health grant and its abolition following the proposed introduction of Business Rate Retention, it will become increasingly difficult for local authorities to justify spending on drug and alcohol services when they cannot adequately fund services they are mandated to deliver. There is an urgent need to make the provision of a full range of drug and alcohol treatment services a statutory responsibility for local authorities.

To quote Collective Voice, an organisation part funded by Blenheim along with other large providers:

“Recent reduction in heroin use has been concentrated amongst the under-30s leaving behind a drug treatment population who are increasingly in frail health because of the cumulative impact of decades of drug addiction, problem alcohol use, poor diet, fragile mental health, and smoking. This leaves them significantly more vulnerable than their age would indicate and places a significant burden on mainstream NHS clinical services.

“Despite this, drug and alcohol treatment is not a natural priority for local authorities, the NHS or public health professionals. This places this area of activity at particular risk from the negative consequences of the proposed replacement of the ring-fenced Public Health Grant with a system of business rate retention.

“Drug and alcohol treatment provides for an unpopular and marginalised population seen by local electors, and politicians as undeserving, particularly in comparison to alternative service user populations such as children and the elderly. Without someone in local systems to champion the agenda there is a continuing risk of deprioritisation and disinvestment.”  

There is growing evidence that local politicians feel that drug and alcohol treatment is an NHS function rather than a local authority public health function. Many are already uncomfortable at the proportion of PHE funding to local authorities that is currently spent on drug and alcohol provision.

At Blenheim we work with a wide range of organisations and government departments to fight for drug and alcohol services and to ensure people in treatment aren’t discriminated against. In doing so we are supported at Westminster, by many hard working politicians from all major parties, who help us hold Government to account.

Advertisements

Shocked and saddened by drug related deaths figures for 2014

At the DAAT conference in early September 2015 I heard the drug related death figures for 2014. Despite having warned people they would be worse than the previous year I was shocked and deeply saddened. I have waited to write this blog to get my thoughts together.

Last year I was shocked by the inaction of Government and many Local Authorities to the 2013 figures.

I was going to talk about the Naloxone Action Group, positive action by the Department of Health, questions in Parliament and early day motions on naloxone. I was going to talk about the fact that since the 2013 drug related death figures came out, I and so many others have worked to try and understand what is happening and the cause.

Personally I believe that increased heroin purity, poor heath and financial pressures on the drug treatment system are key factors in increasing drug related deaths. I also believe that action to increase naloxone availability in England will avert a significant proportion of these deaths. Without naloxone the figures would already have been, in my view, significantly higher.

However the 2014 figures are shocking to me, every death represents a person, perhaps a father or grandmother, certainly someone’s child, grief and the waste of a life. I picture the funerals as a silent rebuke to do more. The figures are the highest since records began.

As you read the statistics below, from the Office of National Statistics, take time to consider the people the figures represent.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.22.32

Heroin and morphine deaths rise by two-thirds in the past 2 years.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.23.31

Within England, the North East has the highest mortality rate from drug misuse, London the lowest.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.21.48

2014 registrations show drug related deaths reaching the highest level since records began.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.28.18

Majority of heroin deaths were among the 30-49 year old age groups.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.22.04

Males were over 2.5 times more likely to die from drug misuse than females.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 15.21.37

Two issues seemed important to understand after the 2013 figures and they remain the same after the 2014 set. Firstly what is causing the rise in deaths? And secondly what is being done to prevent them?

A naloxone summit, hosted by Blenheim, bought together a campaign for a national naloxone programme in England. Through a FOI request we discovered the true extent of under provision of naloxone with only 32% of local authorities in England saying Naloxone was available. We formed the Naloxone Action Group England to ensure the regulations were changed, to ensure effective guidance was produced, and to ensure provision of naloxone across England. We got MPs to ask a range of questions in Parliament and gained support for an early day motion, sponsored by amongst others the current leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn and signed by the current Shadow Chancellor, John McDonald. This was not a party political issue; the EDM was also supported by current Conservative Minister Tracey Crouch. In total 32 MPs signed up to support wider naloxone availability.

Letters to the Minister from the Drug Alcohol and Justice Parliamentary group, chaired by Lord Ramsbotham secured firm assurance that the Government would make the changes recommended by ACMD to make naloxone more widely available from October this year.

Sadly, at the Naloxone Action Group we believe around 50% of local authorities continue to fail to provide naloxone. We will do a further FOI this year.

Meetings at Chatham House with senior officials revealed clear evidence that entering and leaving drug treatment and/or prison are particularly dangerous times for overdose and death. Thus pressure to leave treatment early and failure to adequately manage transfer of those with drug problems from residential settings could seriously endanger lives.

A drug related death summit held at the beginning of this year, hosted by Drugscope, Public Health England (PHE) and the Local Government Association, examined what might be causing the rise and to look at what might be done to reduce overdose deaths in future years. The attendees included policy makers from across government, commissioners, clinical and service provider leaders, and service user representatives.

The key messages from the summit were:

  • The availability of accurate, timely and easily accessible data is important in order to make the appropriate adjustments to policy and practice in order to reduce drug-related deaths;
  • The majority of drug misuse deaths still involve opiates, in particular heroin and methadone;
  • Being in contact with a treatment service would appear to be a significant protective factor for drug-related deaths;
  • Services and practitioners should pay attention to the elevated risk for those in treatment who are regularly overdosing, are drinking excessively, live alone in temporary accommodation or are homeless, or as a result of smoking-related diseases have compromised respiratory systems;
  • Policy makers and commissioners should think about providing timely and accurate alerts to drug users who are not in the treatment system – including drug users who don’t use opiates;
  • Commissioners and services should look at how they could supply naloxone more widely in the community to ensure those vulnerable to heroin overdose (including those not in treatment), their families, peers and carers are able to access the medicine.

Over the last year we have seen PHE nationally, clearly assert the need for action to reduce drug related harm and publish significant guidance on naloxone and reducing drug related deaths. However, at a time when drug related deaths are at their highest ever level, to cut £200million from Public Heath funding to local authorities is truly outrageous.

I am still ashamed to live in a country where things like the PHE £200 million cut happen at a time of evident need and many local authorities look the other way as people die as a result of the negligent failure to follow guidelines and supply naloxone.