European heroin users are on high alert as the death toll rises from heroin tainted with anthrax. At least eight people have died -- seven in Scotland and one in Germany -- since early December, and another 14 Scottish heroin users have been hospitalized after being diagnosed with anthrax. Meanwhile, drug reform and drug user activists are reporting a cluster of nine suspicious heroin-related deaths in Coimbra, Portugal, although it is unclear at this point whether they are linked to anthrax-tainted heroin.
The Scottish government has responded by urging heroin users to stop using and to seek drug treatment. That advice has not gone over well with drug users and public health and harm reduction advocates, who are demanding an emergency public health response.
The first four Scottish deaths were in Glasgow, but after one person died in Tayside and one in the Forth Valley earlier this month, Health Protection Scotland epidemiologist Dr. Colin Ramsay said: "The death of this patient in NHS Forth Valley indicates further geographical spread of the cases, meaning that heroin users all across Scotland need to be aware of the risks of a potentially contaminated supply. I would urge all users to stop using heroin immediately and contact local drug support services for help in stopping. If any heroin users do notice signs of infection, for example marked redness and swelling around an injection site or other signs of serious infection such as a high fever, they should seek urgent medical advice."
The French government has also reacted, with the General Directorate for Health issuing a statement Tuesday warning that contaminated heroin may be circulating in France and other European countries. Noting the rising death toll, the statement said "the likeliest source is heroin contaminated by anthrax spores."
Heroin users should be alert, the French statement said, because heroin contaminated with anthrax is indistinguishable from other heroin. "There is no outward sign or color enabling the user to tell whether the heroin has been contaminated by anthrax, and contaminated heroin dissolves or is used in the same way as uncontaminated heroin," it said.
Anthrax is a potentially lethal bacterium that exists naturally in the soil and can also occur among cattle. It is also a potential bio-terror weapon.
The vast majority of heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghanistan, and while so far evidence is lacking, speculation is that anthrax spores may have been present in bone meal, an animal product sometimes used as a cutting agent. Another possibility is that containers used in the heroin production process were contaminated with anthrax spores. And, given fears that Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies could resort to biological warfare against the West and given the Taliban's role in the Afghan opium and heroin trade, a bio-attack cannot be completely ruled out.
"The anthrax-infected heroin hasn't decreased use, whether people are injecting it or chasing [smoking] it," said Tam Miller, chair of Chemical Reaction, an Edinburgh drug user group, and a member of INPUD (the International Network of People who Use Drugs). "People are scared -- you can be sure of that -- but I think they're more afraid of withdrawing. The Scottish government's advice was for people to stop using heroin, but that won't happen."
Instead, Miller said, heroin users are doing what they can to protect themselves. "Users feel there's not much they can do personally and, as usual, they feel isolated," he said. "A lot are looking up the effects on anthrax on the net and passing on information to people with no internet access. We think the powers that be should put out information on how to spot signs if someone has been in contact with access. Basically, mate, the Scottish government wants little to do with it."
The Scottish government's response so far has drawn a harsh rebuke from the United Kingdom's harm reduction and public health community. In a Tuesday letter to the Scottish government, the International Harm Reduction Association, the drug think tank Release, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the UK Harm Reduction Alliance, and individual public health experts called on the government to put in place an emergency public health plan to deal with the crisis.
The letter said the government's advice to heroin users to stop using and enter treatment was "reckless in light of the fact that waiting times in Scotland for opiate substitute treatment (OST) are the longest in the UK. Many of those accessing services are informed that it is a condition of their treatment to engage with the service for a minimum period of time, before they will be entitled to a prescription offering an alternative substitute medication, usually methadone. In some areas of Scotland we have been informed that waiting times for OST can be up to 12 months."
[There is another potential issue with methadone, as well. The antibiotic drug Cipro, used to treat anthrax, interacts with methadone, leading to the possibility of methadone overdoses.]
Given the reality of treatment shortages and delays, it is "unacceptable" for the Scottish government to just tell users to stop or to go to treatment that isn't there, the letter said. "It is clear that this kind of approach can only lead to the death of more vulnerable people."
Instead, the Scottish government must immediately implement a public health plan that includes rapid access and low-threshold prescribing of alternatives to street heroin, the letter-writers advised. They recommended prescribing dihydrocodeine, a synthetic opiate approximately twice as strong as codeine. It is sold in the US under brand names including Panlor, Paracodin, and Synalgos.
"Such an approach will go some way to prevent any more loss of life and will provide greater protection to the public as a whole," the letter said. "Failure to adopt such a policy would mean that the Scottish state would be failing in its duty to its citizens."
Joep Oomen of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) had another suggestion. "The only decent reaction to this kind of episode is to immediately open facilities where people can test their heroin and where they can use in safe conditions, supervised by people who can help if anything goes wrong," he said.
"Hopefully, in the longer term, because of these incidents, authorities will start to see the need for introducing heroin maintenance programs, not as a trial for a limited group of people, but as a permanent service for all those who cannot abstain from heroin for a longer period of time," he added.
Ultimately, said Oomen, prohibition is the problem. "Adulteration is a practice that belongs to the illegal market," he said. "It happens because the people who control the heroin market have no interest at all in the health of their customers."
Dr. Sharon Stancliff of the US Harm Reduction Coalition agreed with her colleagues' assessment of the Scottish government's response. "Telling people to stop is not useful information," she said. "Maybe some occasional users will have a glass of wine instead, but if people are sick and treatment is limited, telling people that heroin is bad for them isn't going to have much impact," she explained.
"At this point, the European harm reduction people should be getting the word out, and the medical people over there need to be on the alert," she added.
Stancliff said she had seen no sign of heroin contaminated with anthrax on this side of the Atlantic, but she was worried. "I hope the DEA is out there buying heroin to see what's in it," she said. "If there is any hint of it here, physicians should be alerted by the Centers for Disease Control as they were with levamisole-tainted cocaine."
If the anthrax-contaminated heroin is coming from Afghanistan, as most heroin consumed in Europe does, US heroin users may catch a break. Most heroin consumed here is of Mexican or Colombian provenance.
But on the other side of the Atlantic, adulterated heroin is killing drug users.