Rate of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland over five times EU average

Research from Queen’s University, Belfast finds opioids most common contributing factor in deaths due to misuse of illegal substances

The rate of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland is more than five times the EU average, according to a report from Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB).

The research, published on Tuesday, outlined how the number of deaths in Northern Ireland from the misuse of illicit drugs almost trebled in a decade, from 61 in 2011 to 175 in 2021. It detailed an “alarmingly high” rate of drug-related deaths for people aged under 35.

“If this trajectory continues, it is likely that we will see an increase in overdoses and drug-related deaths across all age groups,” the report found.

“The prevention of each of these deaths is possible,” said Prof Anne Campbell, the report’s lead author.


She added that it was therefore “essential for the Department of Health, Northern Executive and society to prioritise this issue”.

The research was carried out by the Drug Deaths Taskforce Northern Ireland in collaboration with QUB, the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drugs Alliance (NIADA), the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Ulster University and the University of St Andrews.

It is the first report to use data from a range of sources, including from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra), the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, emergency admissions data from all hospital trusts in Northern Ireland, and police.

According to the report, Drug Overdoses and Drug Related Deaths in NI, the rate of deaths in Northern Ireland stands at 11.5 per 100,000 of population, compared to 1.8 per 100,000 in the EU.

It is the second highest rate in the UK after Scotland, where the level of drug deaths is “highest among European countries, second only to the overdose rates in North America”.

Young people aged 25-34 account for the greatest number of drug-related deaths, which have risen “significantly” from 13.4 per 100,000 in 2011 – a total of 33 deaths – to 66 fatalities in 2021, or 27 per 100,000 in 2021.

Opioids were the most common contributing factor to deaths from the misuse of illegal drugs. The presence of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl or nitazenes, have increased in the last five years, and the report recommended their emergence be monitored.

The substance most implicated in emergency admissions between April 2017 and March of last year was paracetamol, and the report noted the “number of intended overdoses with paracetamol has remained stubbornly high, which is likely a result of the incidence of social deprivation, social isolation during the pandemic, and high rates of mental health disorders.”

Northern Ireland prescribes more diazepam per capita than anywhere else in the UK, with 3½ times as many prescriptions of the benzodiazepine as in England.

Data from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service showed that, for females, the highest number of drug related/overdose calls was in the 15-19-year-old age group in 2021/22, with 475 women attended to. For males it was among 25-29-year-olds, with 799 men seen.

In the same period, 466 young people aged 10-19 were attended to by emergency services for an overdose. The highest number of hospital admissions for overdose incidents was in that age group.

Overall – aside from two periods coinciding with limited capacity of ambulance services due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the number of overdose calls attended by ambulance personnel was around 2,000 per quarter. In 2021, 10,000 sought help from young peoples’ services for drug and alcohol issues.

“Currently, drug outreach services are facing unprecedented challenges due to staffing shortages, making it difficult to handle the growing pressures associated with young people at elevated risk of problematic drug use in Northern Ireland,” the report warns.

“In the short term, it is recommended that immediate resources be allocated to service provision in order to address the escalating crisis of overdoses and overdose deaths among young people and young adults in Northern Ireland.”

Also among the report’s recommendations were a call for real-time testing and an online alert system. It said “in light of some of the statistics that highlight the younger 10-19 age grouping for overdose responder data, there should be front-of-house testing for drugs that young people present with at local festivals and concerts in the 2024 festival season in NI.”

The report also showed the number of deaths reported where multiple drugs were used has increased, with the percentage of deaths where five or more drugs were recorded rising from 2 per cent in 2011 to 15.5 per cent in 2021.

“Compared with 2011, drug-related deaths in more recent years were more likely to be caused by several drugs, rather than one specific drug,” it said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times