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16 KILLED BY POISONED HEROIN AS TOLL RISES; Health chiefs blame mystery bug in drugs.

THE death toll of junkies believed killed by a batch of contaminated heroin rose to 16 yesterday.

The latest victim was struck down by a mystery bug feared to be responsible for at least eight of the deaths.

Now a special task force set up by the Garda National Drugs Bureau fears the death toll could be even higher.

Yesterday a health board spokesman said: "We are reviewing all cases and deaths to ascertain if they meet the case definition - injecting drug users with evidence of severe swellings.

"We are not yet in a position to say if the illness from which this person died meets the case definition."

Yesterday, it was revealed victim number 16, a heroin addict, died at St James' Hospital in Dublin's city centre.

Authorities fear the cases could spread right across Dublin, and will not remain confined to the south west.

In a dangerous twist, the epidemic in Scotland where the disease seems to have first come to light has spread from Glasgow to Aberdeen.

The Dublin cases have almost exactly mirrored the Scottish experience so far.

There were 12 deaths in Glasgow over a short two-week period. But then another fortnight later, it began again in Aberdeen, killing nine.

Medics are worried the bug could follow the same trend here. Gardai are also investigating the deaths of other addicts, including Maureen Gleeson and Rosie Lakes, who died in unusual circumstances.

Officers are still running tests on a pounds 100,000 batch of heroin which they believe may be responsible for the deaths.

Meanwhile, local drug workers have been left in the dark about what's causing the deaths.

It was originally feared that either Anthrax or the flesh-eating bug necrotising fasciitis were responsible for the Glasgow-linked deaths.

Many of those who died exhibited symptoms of those diseases, including major internal organ failure and massive abscessing on the skin.

Experts are now looking at the possibility that the bug or virus is something they've never come across before.

They believe addicts who are injecting it directly into muscles are at most risk.

Junkies are still being warned by the Health Board not to inject under any circumstances.

The Health Board are taking the deaths so seriously that an expert from the Infectious Diseases Centre in Atlanta has been drafted in.

In a separate development, gardai in the West have warned drug users to be on the alert after uncovering a batch of ecstasy tablets coated with heroin.

Supt Joe Staunton in Mayo said drugs officers had received a tip-off from a suspected dealer.

He said: "We are having a number of ecstasy tablets which we seized in the last two weeks analysed at the moment.

"It seems they may have been coated in a stronger drug in the possible attempt to get people hooked on that drug."

It's understood the tablets have been coated with heroin.

Supt Staunton said: "I would issue a warning to the young people using the drugs in the area.

"As we are awaiting analysis on that but we would give a warning from that point of view that it can be extremely dangerous."

He also warned landlords to be on the lookout for dubious tenants.

He added: "Some of the people involved have been from out of town and are renting property in Castlebar and using those properties as a base for selling drugs."
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Author:Foxe, Ken
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:563
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