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The BBC's Emma Simpson
"The most serious illness amongst drug users in Glasgow in a decade"
 real 28k

Dr Tom Gilhooley, Scottish Executive adviser
"It's very difficult to contain this. This is a major public health disaster"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 19:13 GMT 20:13 UK
Drug illness 'a health disaster'
The majority of victims have been women
A mystery illness which has claimed the lives of eight drug addicts in Scotland has been described as a "major public health disaster" by a government drugs expert.

Dr Tom Gilhooley, an adviser to the Scottish Executive, has warned that unless the cause of the illness can be established quickly, more lives are likely to be lost.

He was speaking as health officials in Glasgow revealed that a further two heroin addicts have died, bringing the death toll to eight in 11 days.

Tom Gilhooley
Dr Tom Gilhooley: "We've got to act quickly"

Greater Glasgow Health Board said that the total number of people infected has risen to 19 from 13 on Tuesday and seven of the eight people who died were women.

Experts have been unable to establish the source of the illness, which has started as an abscess or inflammation around the point of injection.

A rogue batch of heroin or the use of citric acid to dissolve heroin have been pinpointed as possible causes. The acid is widely available for use as a food flavouring.

I'm very afraid to say the danger of more deaths is very great

Dr Tom Gilhooley

But initial tests on a batch of citric acid had failed to reveal any obvious signs of toxicity.

Dr Gilhooley, who is also a Glasgow GP, said that, because the majority of heroin addicts injected the drug, the death toll could rise quickly.

He said: "I'm very afraid to say the danger of more deaths is very great.

"We don't have the information to put on the grapevine to say just exactly what the cause of these deaths is.

Addicts' arms
The illness appears as an abscess

"It's very difficult to contain this, this is a major public health disaster and we have to try and act."

Thirteen cases of the illness came to light on Tuesday and were centred on the Govanhill area in the south of the city.

But the health board said six more cases had been reported in the north of the city and of these four of the victims were female and two were male.

All the victims had injected into muscles or other tissue rather than veins, a practice most common among female addicts, and one possible indicator of why more women had fallen ill.

'Stable condition'

A board spokesman said: "As with the earlier cases, all have a serious abscess as a result of injecting into muscle or accidentally injecting outside a vein.

"Four of the patients are in a stable condition but two women have died."

"There are now therefore 19 known cases of whom 14 are women and five men."

The board said that it had issued a Glasgow-wide warning to GPs treating people with drug problems about the illness and they have come forward to report more cases.

Health officials said the illness usually began with the appearance of an abscess or inflammation and this was followed by breathing problems and organ failure.

Citric acid
Citric acid among substances suspected

The officials said there was no evidence that the illness could be transmitted from one person to another and there was no wider risk to the community.

Public health consultant, Dr Laurence Gruer, said: "Drug injectors are advised to seek urgent medical attention if they develop a serious abscess or severe tissue inflammation and to avoid injecting into muscle if at all possible."

Of the initial 13 cases initially reported, three people were said to be seriously ill in hospital and a further four had been released after receiving treatment.

Shopkeepers in Govanhill told BBC Scotland that addicts frequently requested citric acid.

One said: "They come often but we always refuse and we have no citric acid."

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10 May 00 | Scotland
Drugs event swings into action
25 Feb 00 | Scotland
Drug chief issues warning
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