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Oldham Chronicle
May 14, 2007

Doctors are in danger of repeating the cycle of legal addiction to benzodiazepines with new drug replacements, an Oldham expert has warned.

The message, from tranquilliser campaigner Barry Haslam, was spelled out at a meeting with Local Government Minister Phil Woolas on Friday.

Now Mr Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, is to call for Department of Health officials to come to Oldham to study the unique withdrawal and treatment service for tranquilliser addicts which was set up in 2005.

In his letter to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, Mr Woolas will ask why Oldham Primary Care Trust is the only one which is paying for a three-year programme to help addicts come off legally prescribed benzodiazepines.

Mr Woolas met Mr Haslam, founder of the Beat the Benzos campaign, his wife Susan, and Suzanne Atreides and Angela Rankin, from Oldham's Drug and Alcohol Services.

The ADS won the tender to operate the PCT's benzo withdrawal service, and Suzanne is the dedicated worker.

Mr Haslam told Mr Woolas that benzodiazepine prescriptions are falling at around 12 million a year, but they are being replaced by drugs called zopiclone, zolpidem and zaleplon, which get four million prescriptions a year.

He added: "They have the same prescription guidelines as benzodiazepines, two to four weeks only, and they are regarded by NICE (the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence) as addictive as benzodiazepines, so we are reinventing the problem."

There are estimated to be around 5,000 addicts of legally prescribed drugs in Oldham. Mr Haslam added: "It costs around 1,000 to get a person off benzos then they can go back to work and start contributing again. It is cost-effective."

His wife added: "We are constantly told by the department that the services are out there but where are they? We have people ringing us up from all over the country for help and we have nowhere to refer them."

Ms Atreides, Oldham's benzodiazepine withdrawal project worker, said she had 51 clients, and 45 new patients to assess. Twenty clients are reducing their doses, and she outlined how people were getting control of their lives back.

She said: "One client wants to join the ADS football team, five patients are on reduction regimes and using counselling and acupuncture."

Mr Haslam said a man in his 70s who had been on them for 44 years had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson's Disease because of the side effects. After reducing the dose he was now starting to smile again and hold conversations.

Ms Atreides said she was also reaching out via Age Concern, Sure Start, GPs surgeries and Asian community workers to reach other addicts. But she warned: "We are just scratching the surface. At the moment it is a manageable caseload but it gets bigger."

Mr Woolas said: "We must ask why is Oldham the only Primary Care Trust in the country which pays for the service. And officials must come up from the Department of Health to study Oldham's model and see if it can be replicated across the country."

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