Users of a fake tanning product that is injected into the skin are availing of a HSE needle exchange programme set up to prevent the spread of disease among heroin addicts.
Melanotan, sometimes called Melanotan II, was originally designed as a treatment for skin cancer before being marketed as a tanning drug. The substance is banned in Ireland but can be purchased easily online. There have also been reports of it being sold in gyms and tanning shops.
The drug can cause acute allergic reactions, dizziness and acne, and has also been linked to instances of melanoma. There have been more than 500 seizures of the drug by authorities since 2015, according to figures released to The Irish Times.
In 2011 the HSE set up a programme allowing intravenous drug users to exchange their needles for clean ones in designated pharmacies around the country.
The pharmacy needle exchange programme aimed to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases among intravenous drug users who share needles. It was also designed to bring drug addicts, particularly heroin addicts, into contact with health workers who could monitor them and offer advice.
According to an evaluation of the programme published by the Health Research Board the primary users are heroin and methadone injectors. However 22 per cent of the 115 pharmacists taking part in the programme reported exchanging needles for steroid users and 9 per cent reported exchanging needles for people using Melanotan.
One of the main requests from pharmacists engaging in the programme was additional training to advise customers injecting Melanotan and other performance and image enhancing drugs.
The report states that pharmacists recently began noticing an increase in young people and members of the Traveller community requesting needles for the injection of Melanotan. Some pharmacies also noticed a rise in demand from eastern Europeans.
Melanotan is banned in Ireland but can be purchased online for about €20 a vial. The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) said imports are seized whenever they are detected.
According to the authority's figures, use of the drug appeared to decline in 2014 when only 10 vials were seized. This was likely due to a public warning in 2013 by the Irish Medicines Board about the dangers of the drug.
There were 334 vials seized in 2015 and 202 in 2016.
Last January a woman was fined at Dublin District Court for selling Melanotan II injections on Facebook. Anne Marie McAleer (33), Bridgeview Apartments, Cloverhill Road, Clondalkin, made about €20,000 from selling the drug. She was fined €4,000.
A HPRA spokeswoman said it strongly advises against the use of the drug: “The HPRA advises that Melanotan and Melanotan II should not be used in any circumstance. There is no guarantee as to the quality, safety or efficacy of these unauthorised medicines. In addition, the administration of these products by injection further increases the health risks.
“The public should be aware that it is not possible to obtain these products in any legitimate establishment or for it to be supplied legally through any online source.”
In 2014 the Irish Needle Exchange Forum conducted a small-scale survey of Melanotan injectors which found that users reported nausea, stomach pains and dizziness.
One user reported that it was making the whites of their eyes and their palms turn darker. Another said it was causing patchy skin and lumps on their breast.
Users were buying Melanotan online as well as in gyms, tanning shops and pub toilets, the survey said.