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Ireland: Bug That Killed Heroin Addicts Identified By Scientists

Media Awareness Project16 Jun 2000 – Irish Examiner

Ireland: Bug That Killed Heroin Addicts Identified By Scientists

Author: Conor Keane

BUG THAT KILLED HEROIN ADDICTS IDENTIFIED BY SCIENTISTSA SOIL BASED bacteria that thrives in dead flesh has been identified as the heroin contaminant which caused the deaths of 37 addicts in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

Clostridium novyi Type A is the name of the bacteria which health experts believe caused the deaths of the 36 injecting heroin users.

Experts at the Public Health Laboratory Service in Cardiff, Wales, and at the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, are now satisfied that the bacteria clostridium novyi Type A is the source of the illness which baffled health chiefs since it first emerged in Glasgow on April 19.

Professor Brian Duerden, medical director of the Public Health Laboratory Service said: ”Clostridium novyi Type A is well known as a cause of severe infection in domestic animals but rarely does so in humans.

”As far as we know, this is the first time this bacteria strain has ever caused an outbreak of infection in drug injectors.”

The bacterium was first identified at the beginning of the last century and was responsible for thousands of deaths during the First World War.

A spokesman for the Greater Glasgow Health Board said: “Our suspicion is that these clostridium have been in the heroin that the patients have been injecting. We might be talking about bacteria, but basically this is a human tragedy.”

He said the new cases which emerged in recent days show the bad batch of heroin is still in use.

The bacteria, which is not always fatal, has killed more than 50% of those who have contracted it since April.

Eight of the 15 heroin addicts who were infected in Dublin died, along with 20 of the 43 addicts infected in Glasgow, and nine of the 16 victims in England and Wales.

The bacteria’s spores can lie dormant in soil for months or years, and only become active in very particular circumstances, as the bacteria can only live in an oxygen free environment.

The illness has only affected drug users who inject heroin directly into muscle as opposed to a blood vein and women seem to be more susceptible than men to the illness.

Experts believe that the injection site may have dead tissue close by, which has no oxygen supply and allows the spores to activate and grow.

The scientists also speculate that the citric acid often added to the drug before injecting may help activate the dormant spores.

The bacteria does not cause problems but powerful toxins they release travel throughout the body wreaking havoc with vital organs including the heart.

Medical experts urge addicts with symptoms to get to hospital quickly. The infection is difficult to treat, even with modern antibiotics, but surgeons may be able to cut away the dead tissue containing the bacteria to save patients.

MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart