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.”

Overdose Deaths Increase from 2017

Thirty-seven people have died from drug overdoses in Iceland so far this year, RÚV reports. The number has already surpassed last year’s total of 34. Many more youths are currently hospitalised for drug addiction than six years ago.

The death of young people due to drug overdoses was the topic of discussion at an open meeting held yesterday by Náum áttum, a youth addiction prevention and education group. Of the 37 individuals who have died of drug overdoses this year, ten are under 30 years old.

Last year just under 1,100 people were admitted to hospital in Iceland due to drug poisoning. Compared to 2012, the numbers have decreased in older age groups but increased among young people, including a 40% increase in those in their early twenties. While older Icelanders tend to overdose with a combination of antidepressant medication and alcohol, in cases of younger individuals opioids and illegal drugs are a more common combination.

Ólafur B. Einarsson, project manager at the Directorate of Health, says young people are not being prescribed the drugs they overdose on, “they are getting these drugs in other ways.” Patients in other Nordic countries, however, receive far fewer prescriptions for habit-forming medication, Ólafur adds. “That’s the main difference between Iceland and its neighbouring countries.”

Investigate 20 Prescription Drug-Related Deaths

Twenty deaths involving prescription drugs are under investigation by police in the capital area, RÚVreports. Detective Chief Superintendent Karl Steinar Valsson says that drug dealers are increasingly turning toward selling prescription drugs, not least because the penalties for selling them are far less severe than for selling illegal narcotics.

Opioids, and young people’s abuse of these drugs, have been a topic of much discussion of late, particularly as opioid use has increased in the last six months.

“This year, we have around 20 deaths investigations here in the capital,” said Karl Steinar. “In some instances, these are cases of suicide, in other cases not—or at any rate, the investigations haven’t shown that.”

The deaths have involved a wide variety of drugs and in some cases, a mixture of prescription drugs and illegal narcotics. Karl Steinar says that the landscape is changing.

“The people who have been selling narcotics have also been shifting over to selling prescription medications that they procure in a variety of ways. And maybe only because the market has in some way opened up to this—it’s both that the availability of prescriptions has increased and that users are prepared to buy these drugs. It seems like it must be very profitable, because otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. And then, of course, the sales model for this is naturally always shifting more and more to the internet.”

There is also the fact that penalties for selling prescription drugs are far less severe than those for selling illegal narcotics. “…That’s of course one reason that people involved in these kinds of illegal activities—often organized crime operations—look to this. Because the punishments are much lighter.”

It’s also clear that some people who are written prescriptions by their doctors are selling those medications on the black market. Karl Steinar says that this is on the increase in Iceland and is something that requires urgent attention.