THOUSANDS of heroin addicts in South Wales are being weaned off the killer substance with substitute drug programmes costing millions.
Across the region, 2,512 people are on prescriptions for methadone and other drugs designed to help people beat opiate dependency.
The estimated annual cost of supplying the drugs and running the treatment plans – which often have lengthy waiting lists – runs to nearly £4m.
Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board, covering Bridgend, has the highest number of patients on opiate replacements in Wales, with 903.
In Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, where there is understood to be a four-week waiting list for treatment, 818 people are being treated at a potential annual cost of more than £2m, including all associated expenses.
Steve Lyons, project coordinator at Inroads Street Drugs Project in Cardiff, said methadone treatment was cost-effective and overall led to huge savings in spending by cutting crime.
He said: “Heroin use is widespread and it’s not just Cardiff. It’s the same sort of scenario in most communities in the UK today.”
Mr Lyons said methadone was “just a small part” of the treatment of heroin addicts.
He told the Echo: “I’ve worked in the field for 25 years and methadone is potentially a life-saving treatment for a lot of people.
“It does away with general issues about offending behaviour and means people can use something that is not street drugs but something which is a treatment, designed for the individual, with individual needs at the core.”
There are 221 registered methadone users in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, which covers Caerphilly, and a further 570 in the Cwm Taf catchment, including Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Janet Roberts, manager of the Wales Drug and Alcohol Network, said: “Based on the people we speak to, there is quite a high demand to get on these programmes, especially in some of the highly-populated areas where there is probably a waiting list.
“This is probably difficult for [heroin users] if they have reached the stage where they are ready to make some changes.”
An Abertawe Bro Morgannwg spokeswoman said there was currently a 32-week waiting list for drug dependence treatment in Bridgend.
She said: “For the past 20 years, the majority of the referrals received by specialised prescribing services were for heroin or other drug addictions.
“However, in the past four years, the trend has changed and now 75% of the referrals are for alcohol-related dependencies.
“Once a referral is received, a patient is usually seen within 10 days for assessment and a basic care plan is put together.
“Substitute prescribing in the treatment of opiate dependencies is often necessary for prolonged periods.”
Cardiff and Vale deputy chief executive Paul Hollard said: “The board prescribes methadone against very strict clinical guidelines which determine which clients will benefit from this medication and under what circumstances it should be dispensed.
“Research has demonstrated that the prescription of methadone and other substitute medication has a significant positive effect on improved health and well-being, reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour, and supports clients to continue to play an important role within the family and sustain their contribution within education and employment.”
Latest research from the Home Office suggests an estimated £2.50 was saved elsewhere for every £1 spent in replacement drug treatment, and it was cost-beneficial in 80% of cases.
The figures on methadone users were released under the Freedom of Information Act.
What treatment costs the NHS
Current number of methadone users and estimated annual cost of treatment, based on current number of patients, per health board
Abertawe Bro Morgannwg
Number of users: 903
Estimated annual cost of treatment: £1,489,950
Number of users: 221
Estimated annual cost of treatment: £130,677.30
Cardiff and Vale
Number of users: 818
Estimated annual cost of treatment: £2,126,800
Number of users: 570
Estimated annual cost of treatment: £213,480
Number of users: 2,512
Estimated annual cost of treatment: £3,960,907.30
* Figures released by health boards under the Freedom of Information Act
South Wales Echo 27thJuly 2011
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