2023 Could See a Record Number of Addiction-Related Deaths

The Medical Director of SÁÁ (National Centre of Addiction Medicine) fears that 2023 could see a record number of addiction-related deaths. Among former clients of the Vogur detox centre and rehabilitation hospital, thirty-five people have died so far this year, RÚV reports. The Minister of Health says that action must be taken.

Thirty-five addiction-related deaths this year

As reported by RÚV yesterday, 35 people struggling with substance use have died so far this year. Dr. Valgerður Rúnarsdóttir, the Medical Director of SÁÁ (National Centre of Addiction Medicine), fears that a record number of deaths could occur this year.

As noted by RÚV, social media has been abuzz with rumours about drug-related deaths recently, with some rumours suggesting that 15 people have died from addiction-related problems in the past two weeks, while others maintain that there have been 36 addictio-related deaths since the start of the year.

No confirmed figures for this period are available from the Directorate of Health, which collects statistics on causes of death in Iceland. It is, however, known that thirty-five former clients of the Vogur detox centre and rehabilitation hospital – aged fifty and younger – have died this year.

“We know that these people are struggling with addiction, and there is every chance that these deaths are related to their addiction, Valgerður Rúnarsdóttir, the Medical Director of SÁÁ (National Centre of Addiction Medicine), told RÚV.

Read More: In Harm’s Way (Opioid Addiction in Iceland)

When asked if these figures, which have done the rounds on social media, were accurate, Valgerður responded thusly: “Yes, I think these figures are real. But I hope that they don’t reflect an ongoing trend for the rest of 2023.

Valgerður fears that if this trend continues, many more people will die this year than when compared to the last five. It is difficult to say what explains the rising numbers.

“However, we know that there is a large increase in opioid addiction, especially among this younger group. It is a very dangerous addiction. These strong painkillers, Oxycontin and Contalgin, which are primarily being used in Iceland, they’re extremely lethal.”

Harm reduction

Frú Ragnheiður is a specially-equipped medical reception vehicle that cruises the capital area six evenings a week and operates according to the philosophy of “harm reduction.” It focuses on the consequences and risks of drug abuse over abstinence. The past few days have seen an uptick in the number of people seeking Frú Ragnheiður’s services, according to Hafrún Elísa Sigurðardóttir, harm reduction team leader at the Red Cross.

“People are scared and want to be informed. We try to educate our clients as much as we can regarding dose sizes and the effects that these substances have on users. We also encourage them to carry Naloxone (a drug designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose) with them at all times,” Hafrún told RÚV.

Rumours on social media have also claimed that there are now substances in circulation where the morphine-related drug Fentanyl is being mixed with other substances, such as LSD, Oxycontin, and cocaine. Such drugs have proven extremely dangerous, for example, in the United States.

Hafrún told RÚV that it was impossible to confirm that such substances were in circulation, but that the team at Frú Ragnheiður was concerned. As were its clients.

“We need to listen”

When asked to respond to the rising number of addiction-related deaths, Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson told RÚV that it was “sad.”

“We have to listen. Something in our society is changing. It’s obvious,” Willum observed.

The minister also stated that more needed to be done. For example, the withdrawal treatment provided at the Vogur detox centre and rehabilitation hospital ​​needed to be strengthened.

“We have been talking about decriminalisation for a long time. I think we need to go a step further in harm reduction measures; we have discussed morphine clinics. It is an obvious prevention against the risk of infection and a great support for people to have a consumption space. We need to find a place for that.”

Record Number of Coronavirus Deaths Since Start of 2022

vaccination Laugardalshöll

Deaths from COVID-19 have hit a record high, Vísir reports, with 188 people having died from the coronavirus since the beginning of 2022. According to Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund, the effect of COVID-19 far outweighs the effects of other infectious diseases such as influenza.

Mainly individuals 70 years and older

Deaths from COVID-19 have surged since the start of 2022, Vísir reports. Thirty-one people died from the coronavirus in 2020 compared to eight in 2021. During the first ten months of 2022, however, that number has risen to 188.

According to Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund, this upswing in cases owes primarily to the highly infectious Omicron variant and the fact that no social restrictions are in place. Deaths have mainly occurred among individuals seventy years and older.

“Which is why we’re encouraging older people, everyone sixty years and older, and those who are at risk, to get their booster shots. That’s the best form of protection,” Guðrún remarked, adding that protection from vaccines diminishes over a period of a few months.

“We’ve also got new vaccines now that offer protection against the original variant of coronavirus and Omicron, which offers better protection. We need to repeat these vaccinations to enter into winter with good protection.”

Read More: Long-form Interview with former chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Guðrún observed that Iceland’s neighbouring countries have also been seeing a rise in cases in 2022. “Confirmed deaths from COVID-19 are believed to be around six and a half million. But there are many who believe that those figures are at least twice as high – thousands of people are still dying from coronavirus every week.”

According to Guðrún, deaths from coronavirus are significantly higher than deaths from influenza. Coronavirus deaths in Iceland are, however, lower when compared to other countries, with Iceland having the lowest death toll among the Nordic countries.

When asked to speculate why, Guðrún pointed to Iceland’s speedy vaccination campaign, its social restrictions, and the fact that the healthcare system had responded well. “I think we can chalk up this achievement to these factors along with the participation of the citizenry.”

COVID May Be a Factor in Elevated Number of Deaths in Early 2022

Chief Epidemiologist Iceland Þórólfur Guðnason

Statistics Iceland reported an unusually high number of deaths in the first quarter: 760 in total, or 150 more than during the same period last year. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says COVID-19 could be a factor. He says, however, that the numbers much be considered in context.

When looking at the numbers of monthly deaths between 2012 and 2019 on one hand, and 2020 and 2022 on the other, it comes to light that there was an increase in deaths among those 70 and older in March, but not in February. The wave of omicron infection peaked in March, as Þórólfur told RÚV. “As we have pointed out before, it seems that COVID has been an influencing factor in the deaths of many senior citizens and people with underlying illness.”

COVID restrictions likely prevented senior deaths

Þórólfur adds that it is difficult to make conclusions about COVID deaths from these numbers alone, but it is interesting to note that in the middle of 2020 and at the start and end of 2021, the number of deaths among those 70 and older was unusually low. “I think it is very likely that the measures that were in effect in 2020 and 2021 protected this age group well,” Þórólfur stated.