Deadly heroin overdoses could soar with surge in Afghan opium production, UN warns

5 October 2006 – The world’s health authorities should prepare for a significant increase in the number of deaths from heroin overdoses following a dramatic surge in opium production in Afghanistan this year, the United Nations top narcotics fighter has warned.

“The abundant supply of Afghan heroin is likely to result in dramatic increases in the purity of street heroin,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC), Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in a letter to some 90 health ministers, the text of which was released today.

“This, in turn, is likely to prompt a substantial increase in the number of deaths by overdose as addicts are not used to injecting doses containing such high concentrations of the drug,” he added.

“I therefore strongly encourage you, the local health authorities and the community drug treatment centres in your country to take every possible measure in the period ahead and to alert practitioners to the possible risk increase.”

UNODC’s 2006 Afghan Opium Survey, published last month, showed that illicit opium production in Afghanistan was a record 6,100 tons this year, an increase of 49 per cent over 2005. Afghanistan accounts for 92 per cent of total world supply of opium, the raw material for making heroin.

In that report Mr. Costa warned that the southern part of Afghanistan, with its large-scale drug operations, terrorism, crime and corruption, was verging on collapse.

“Afghan opium is fuelling insurgency in western Asia, feeding international mafias and causing a hundred thousand deaths from overdoses every year,” he said then, calling on the Afghan Government to take greater action against corruption and to arrest major drug traffickers and wealthy opium-farming landlords and seize their assets.

Governors and police officials presiding over opium-growing provinces should be removed and charged while drug-free areas should be rewarded with more substantial and more visible development aid, he said.

He also called on western governments to do more to curb drug abuse in their countries. “Heroin habits in the West put huge sums of money into the pockets of criminals and insurgents who destabilize Afghanistan and kill soldiers and civilians alike,” he said.

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