Despite an explosion in the number of new cases seeking treatment for heroin addiction in the region over the past ten years and seizures of the drug by gardai in the division soaring to unprecedented levels, recovering addicts in Waterford are now waiting two years to access a methadone maintenance programme – the longest waiting list for treatment in the country.

Figures released to the Dail Public Accounts Committee last week reflect a spiralling heroin problem in the city, with addicts typically waiting two years for a place on one of the South East’s methadone programmes, based in Waterford and Carlow. Both are operating at capacity, with a further 40 names on the waiting list and drugs campaigners fear these lengthy waits are a disincentive to addicts, who need to access treatment immediately when they present.

While Gardai in the Waterford division reported a 100% increase in heroin seizures last year and a co-relating rise in house and car break-ins, the HSE has yet to announce concrete plans for the expansion of the local methadone programmes or the rollout of a needle exchange programme. Meanwhile drugs campaigners say more and more needles are being found discarded in public places in Waterford – a clear indication of an increase in injected heroin use.

Rise in heroin use

Heroin is now the third most prevalent drug amongst those presenting for treatment in Waterford, after alcohol and cannabis. HSE statistics suggest that, of those who had injected, a quarter of local users had shared equipment. A spokesperson for the HSE said the recent Report of the C&AG on Drug Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation identified the need to set targets for waiting times for methadone treatment, as well as expand needle exchange services.

However the HSE spokesperson could not confirm to The Munster Express any immediate plans to increase the existing capacity of methadone programmes, nor roll out a needle exchange service. Injecting drug users represent a high-risk group for blood-borne viral infections, including HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C and needle exchange programmes, whilst recognising that in the short-term it may not be possible to eradicate drug use, at least provide an avenue for disposal and a facility where users have access to clean needles.

No timeframe

Though drugs workers in the area were hopeful that such a programme would be introduced in Waterford and the south east some time this year and that a new location for the city’s methadone treatment would be found which would increase the service’s capacity, the HSE spokesperson could offer no timeframe for any such moves. “The HSE acknowledges that there are challenges with respect to waiting times for treatment in certain parts of the country …where drug usage has increased significantly in recent years”, the spokesperson commented.

Shortage of GPs

The HSE spokesperson said a shortage of GPs participating in the methadone programme accounted for some of the delay in the South East, adding that the HSE was encouraging more GPs to participate. Elsewhere in the country, addicts in the midlands must wait for three to six months for methadone treatment, while the waiting list in the west is about six months. In Cork, the waiting time is about 9 months.

The HSE spokesperson said individuals presenting for treatment for opiate related issues were provided with a full and comprehensive assessment not only in terms of medical but also psychosocial needs.  The range of interventions includes assessment, stabilisation, harm reduction measures, care planning, methadone maintenance, counselling and detoxification within specialist clinics, residential settings and within community settings. “It should be noted that due to the complexity of this client group people will enter and re-enter services and may need interventions on more than one occasion which necessitates focused engagement and flexibility”, the spokesperson said. He added that the HSE had spent €101.87m in 2008 on specific addiction services provided by HSE and community and voluntary addiction services .