Heroin: In the news
Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 4:14 pm
Apart from infectious bloodborne diseases, reactions associated with toxic and semi-toxic additives, unknown purity levels, and the possibility of overdose, intravenous drug users also have to weigh the possibility of fatal bacterial infections.
In April of 2000, a contaminated batch of heroin began a deadly march across Great Britain. By August, more than 40 people in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland died. Researchers eventually identified Clostridium vovyi type A, a highly toxic bacterium that grows in soil and animals. Clostridium itself is harmless, but its dormant spores produce deadly toxins when released.
Health officials said that bacterial infections are rather common in people who ingest drugs intravenously, but such deadly outbreaks are unusual.
Apparently all those who died had injected the drug intramuscularly rather than directly into the bloodstream. Oxygen in the blood usually kills any stray bacterium in the heroin, but there is no oxygen in muscles, and the bacterium were able to grow and release their cargo of toxic spores.
In all, 109 addicts across Ireland and the U.K. fell ill between April and August. Some users felt no ill effects at all, while others experienced swelling and abscesses. For 43 users, the reaction was followed by the rapid onset of toxic shock. Some of them died within hours.
Antibiotics effectively kill the bacteria, but nothing in modern medicine could combat the toxicity of the Clostridium spores. The Clostridium infection caused massive inflammation of vital organs, internal hemorrhaging, and death. Experts say there is no telling when or where it may strike again.