NHS spends £500,000 on users’ needles and swabs

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SUBSTANCE abusers in the Lothians have been handed millions of items of drug paraphernalia at a cost of more than £500,000 in less than three-and-a half years.

Under a Scottish Government strategy aimed at reducing the spread of infection among drug users, NHS Lothian has given out almost two million needles and syringes, along with more than one million swabs and over 1.3 million packs of vitamin C or citric acid, used by addicts to dissolve heroin.

The equipment, which is supplied free to drug users, has cost NHS Lothian £516,284 since April 2009 – with nearly £50,000 being spent on drug paraphernalia already between April and July this year. Almost 60,000 sharps bins, used to safely dispose of needles, were also distributed over the 36-month period.

The Scottish Government and NHS Lothian moved to defend the practice of giving out paraphernalia, saying it was crucial in reducing the transmission of deadly viruses and reduced the long-term financial burden on the NHS, with standard hepatitis C treatment costing £7000 per patient, or £28,000 if they have a more severe version of the virus.

But MSP Jackson Carlaw, (pictured) the Scottish Conservatives’ health spokesperson, branded the policy “crazy”.

He said: “People will be quite stunned to see the extent to which to SNP and our health boards go to help addicts indulge in drug use. That in turn will only increase crime rates in the area, because they have to pay for the drugs somehow. NHS budgets are tight, and pouring away tens of thousands of pounds on drug paraphernalia when nursing posts are being reduced is a crazy approach.”

However, Grant Sugden, director of the Edinburgh-based Waverley Care charity which works to prevent the spread of HIV and Hapatitis C, insisted the policy offered value for money. He said: “There’s a lot of evidence that providing this equipment does work. Treating people with HIV for life comes at a huge cost, and while hepatitis C can be cured, it’s still expensive.

“We all want to see people coming off drugs, but at the same time we want people who are using to do it more safely. It’s ridiculous to say having injecting equipment available encourages people to take drugs.”

While the majority of those making use of the free equipment are heroin addicts, those using image-enhancing drugs such as steroids also take advantage of free injecting equipment.

The syringe barrels and needles provided come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Packs of 100 basic needles are purchased at a cost of £1.40, while more expensive 1ml “never-share” syringes, which are designed specifically for drug users, cost £37.50 for 500.

Hilda Stiven, co-ordinator for the Lothian Hepatitis Managed Care Network, said the programmes had the added benefit of bringing drug users into contact with NHS staff who could then offer support, and had contributed to Lothian having one of the lowest rates of Hepatitis C among drug users in Scotland.

She added: “These services play a major role in bringing about more integrated care for injecting drug users, providing educational interventions, identifying those infected with hepatitis C and linking people in to clinical care and support.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Increasing the quantity, quality and nature of injecting equipment provided is critical to our efforts to reduce transmission of hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses – notably HIV – and in turn, to reduce the long- term burden on the NHS from treating and managing those infected.”