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Afghan poppy fields

23rd January 2007

19092006_hospice1.jpgThe NHS should consider using opium poppies from Afghanistan to address shortages in diamorphine.

The British Medical Association has said using the poppy fields, more often used to harvest illegal supplies of heroin, could help UK patients and provide Afghans with a much needed legal income for farmers.

The poppies contain morphine that is chemically modified to produce diamorphine, which is also known as heroin.

Diamorphine is widely used to relieve pain for both the terminally ill and following surgery, but shortages mean patients are being given less effective and more costly alternatives.

Currently poppy fields are destroyed by the Afghan government to prevent illegal drug trafficking, and they want to continue in their measures to eradicate the crop. The UK government backs this approach.

Experts say it is not really known why supplies are dwindling, which has meant tightening up guidance on when it can be used, although Department of Health said the situation is improving.

The DH said it was considering other possible sources for the drug, but this is complicated by other issues, for example the specialised freeze-dried process which is needed to prepare the diamorphine injection, for which there is limited production capacity.

The BMA stressed it was time to consider new ways of securing supplies.

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