Surge in overdoses among heroin users in Dublin has ‘tailed off’, HSE says

Traces of nitazene, a synthetic opioid, detected in sample of brown powder linked to case in Dublin

An “unprecedented” surge in overdoses among heroin users in Dublin “tailed off” over the weekend but there remains concern that it could become an “ongoing” problem, the HSE has said.

An alert was issued late last week by the health authority after 34 overdoses were recorded in a 24 hour period. The total number recorded since last Thursday had risen to 57 as of Monday.

The HSE identified a trace amount of a nitazene type substance in a brown powder associated with a Dublin overdose.

Nitazene is a synthetic opioid which, in the last two years, has become common in the UK, where it has been linked to many overdose deaths. It has not been widely encountered in Ireland. Taking heroin mixed with nitazene poses “a substantial risk of overdose, hospitalisation and death”, the HSE said.


It said there was an “extra risk at this time” in using heroin, adding that it “strongly recommends people do not try new types of drugs or new batches being sold on the market”.

Gardaí believe a massive drop-off in the amount of heroin coming to Ireland from Afghanistan, linked to a Taliban clampdown on opium production, has caused dealers to source supplies of the drug elsewhere. These are much stronger than that to which users are accustomed.

Prof Eamon Keenan, the HSE’s national clinical lead for addiction services, said the number of overdoses “tailed off” over the weekend. He said it was “very difficult to say” whether any of the overdoses were fatal.

“The number on Sunday were no different than normal. Our concern is that it [the rise] may not be an isolated incident,” he told The Irish Times. “It might be happening on an ongoing basis into the future. People need to continue to follow the harm reduction advice.”

Prof Keenan said the presence of the synthetic opioid is a “new development” in Ireland.

“We hadn’t seen Nitazene before. It’s not new for Europe, it has been seen in Europe over the last number of years. The UK and Scotland have experienced a number of incidents this year. It was more a question of when, not if, it would come here.”

Over the weekend, the HSE used digital traffic signs in Dublin to warn the public about the circulation of the potentially lethal batch.

Tony Duffin, chief executive of the Ana Liffey Drug’s Project, said the spike in overdoses is something he has “never known to happen before” in the 18 years he has worked with the organisation.

“What we’ve tried to do collectively is respond to the immediate crisis in Dublin city centre but we don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know how much is out there; will it just be contained in Dublin or will it be wide than Dublin; will it come into other drug supplies,” he said.

“I don’t want to cause a moral panic about it but the point is we need to keep working together and we need to find out as much information as we can and to get that information out to the people who use drugs.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times