Over 20,000 children are hooked on heroin
By Nina Goswami and Gemma Brosnan
Last Updated: 11:46pm GMT04/02/2006
Up to 35,000 children under 16 are using heroin, according to official figures.
The alarming scale of heroin abuse by children is revealed just a week after an 11-year-old girl collapsed at her primary school desk in Glasgow after smoking the drug.
Until now, figures on heroin addiction among children were based on research collated from just two cities, Glasgow and Newcastle upon Tyne, where 90 heroin addicts under 13 were discovered.
But new Government figures, based on a nationwide survey, show that the problem is much more widespread than originally thought. One leading academic on child drug abuse said last night that the number of schoolchildren using heroin could be as high as 60,000.
Doctors said the figure showed that heroin was a ticking "health time bomb" and parents called for urgent action by the Government.
Gaille McCann, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drugs, said last night: "The Government's own figures prove that the 11-year-old girl wasn't an isolated case.
"They keep trying to reassure us that there isn't a crisis but they need to stop pretending and act quickly before the situation gets out of control."
Dr Paul Skett, an addiction expert from GlasgowUniversity, gave warning that heroin abuse could cause serious long-term damage to children's health. "Heroin affects the brain, hormonal and sexual development which means children won't develop properly and girls might not be able to have children when they are older," he said.
The Government findings, from the study Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England in 2004, states that in each year since 2000 one per cent of all schoolchildren used heroin at least once.
More than 9,700 children aged 11 to 15 were interviewed. A similar survey was conducted in Scotland, where the same percentage of heroin users was found among 7,000 schoolchildren.
Elizabeth Fuller, the lead statistician on the Government survey, said that the figure was rounded up from 0.7 per cent but margins of error meant that the figure could be 0.5 per cent or 0.9 per cent - putting the nationwide number of children taking heroin at between 19,500 and 35,100.
Prof Neil McKeganey, a narcotics expert from GlasgowUniversity, said the figure could be much higher than 35,000 and would continue to rise.
"Growing numbers of children are being exposed to heroin from infancy," he said. "Around 300,000 children growing up in the UK have one or both parents addicted to heroin. These children assume heroin use is quite normal."
Sarah Compton, 29, who became hooked on heroin after suffering sexual abuse as a child and is currently in rehabilitation with the charity Phoenix House, said: "I went to a Catholic school where they didn't warn us about the dangers of drink and drugs until we were 13 and 14, and by then it was too late. It's not unusual to be doing A-class drugs at 12."
Kelly Anderson, 27, from Newcastle, whose spiral towards heroin addiction began at 14, said: "I'm not surprised that there are 11-year-olds on heroin. I've seen it before. It's definitely usual for kids around 14."
Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary said: "We need effective measures to create awareness in young people of the risks."
The Department of Health said: "We have made sure that all schools receive guidance on solvents, drugs and alcohol."