How drink destroys our health services

WHAT cost our booze culture? Today we launch a new series investigating the effect alcohol is having on our society. It's perceived as a harmless legal drug which enhances bonhomie and helps shed inhibitions.

By Colin Adwent

WHAT cost our booze culture? Today we launch a new series investigating the effect alcohol is having on our society. It's perceived as a harmless legal drug which enhances bonhomie and helps shed inhibitions. COLIN ADWENT looks at its spiralling impact on our ambulance service.

JASON Gillingham is used to dealing with the human wreckage whose senses have virtually been obliterated by drink.

Already at full stretch, he and his fellow paramedics are frighteningly aware of the short-term impact as well as the long-term health time-bomb generated by alcohol.

Booze-sodden drinkers are one of the major reasons for the number of calls to East of England ambulance crews rocketing by 20 per cent in the past year, with total incidents rising from 179.959 to 224,622.

Mr Gillingham, a clinical field operations manager based in Ipswich, estimates alcohol-related injuries and its associated problems now account for 30 to 40 per cent of the crews' workload.

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The alcopops generation and hardened drinkers have led to alcohol-related problems soaring since Mr Gillingham joined the ambulance service 15 years ago.

He said: “There's always been a problem in relation to drinking, there's no doubt about that.

“Since I have been in the ambulance service you had Friday and Saturday evenings in particular, where you always went to work knowing you were going to be confronted with a number of drunken individuals.

“The problem now is alcohol is a 365-day a year, 24-hour a day, problem.”

Mr Gillingham feels the accessibility of alcohol has been a major contributory factor. No longer is it only off-licences and pubs which offer the opportunity to buy booze.

“Before you used to get pubs, where you knew potentially there would be problems. But the police and local authorities work really well now with the licensees. Drinking in pubs tends to be responsible.

“The problem is alcohol is so cheap and readily available and is so easy for adolescents to get hold of.

“We see an increase of calls to children. Eleven and 12-year-olds will be inebriated through alcohol.

“I have been to fatal traffic accidents where's there's been a very, very young life of 17-18-years-old and alcohol was a contributing factor and I have seen an increase in very young alcoholics.

“I'm 36 and very often come into contact with chronic alcoholics who are considerably younger than me.

“I don't necessarily think it is a problem with the publicans. Nowadays we seem to have a problem that you can buy alcohol from shops, like very strong cider for £3 or £4. Teenagers can access that very easily. A two-litre bottle of alcohol will probably inebriate half-a-dozen teenagers.

“We are often called to multiple numbers of teenagers who have all sat around and got drunk.

“There does seem to be a teenage girl thing, We do seem to be getting a lot of adolescent females who are getting drunk.

“Alcohol really does cross the social boundaries. It can strike anybody at any time. Parents have got to be very responsible. They need to educate their children about the dangers of alcohol.”

Calls to relating to alcohol are always treated as a medical emergency.

Mr Gillingham said: “The ambulance service is the last line of defence when people see somebody collapsed on a street corner, even though they are drunk. There's nowhere else to turn and they end up making a 999 call to us.

“It is not uncommon for all our resources in Ipswich to be committed on alcohol-related calls. Probably from 8pm until the early hours there's always an ambulance somewhere in east Suffolk on an alcohol-related call.

“When you start looking at chronic problems, heavy drinkers are more susceptible to cardio-vascular disease. There's no doubt about it that alcohol is the biggest drug problem we face as health care professionals. I can't emphasise that enough.

“It does stretch the service from time to time. The crews feel desperately frustrated.

“I think society does not really want to confront this issue. What we need to do is educated people about moderation. Alcohol is incredibly dangerous for a whole variety of reasons. You are more susceptible to accidents, assaults and, certainly for women, sexual assaults.

“It takes away your inhibitions and has an addictive factor to it. I think society has a very laissez-faire attitude towards alcohol.

“If you were at home and one of your friends decided to get out their wallet and snort crack, it would deeply offend most people. However, if somebody starts drinking and gets inebriated, most people think it's quite funny. It doesn't seem to have the same impact.”

The threat of violence is also a factor ambulance crews must face.

“We had about 50 ambulance staff who were assaulted last year and drink and drugs was a contributing factor in more than 95 per cent of those cases.

“I have been assaulted and threatened only once or twice, but some of our crews have certainly faced that quite recently. We have had a number of assaults on ambulance staff in Ipswich and Felixstowe.

“We try and encourage staff to press charges. In the last few months a couple of people have been successfully prosecuted and on both occasions alcohol was a contributing factor.

“One of the things I would like to see is an increase in the legal drinking age to 21. If you look at places like the United States that have very strict drinking laws their incidents of teenage drinking and early presentation of alcoholism is very, very low compared to us.”

If you are affected by alcoholism telephone Alcoholics Anonymous' helpline 0845 769 7555 or www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

N Has your life been blighted by alcohol? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

N Jane is a 29-year-old woman recovering from a life of drink and drugs. See tomorrow's Evening Star for her story.

BETWEEN April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2007 East of England Ambulance Service received a total of 224,622 emergency calls for the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Of these, 10,116 were coded as overdoses when assigned to its Automatic Medical Priority Dispatch System (AMPDS).

These included intentional suicide attempts involving an overdose of prescribed medication to an unintentional overdose of alcohol as a result of the patient having had 'one too many' on a night out.

The figures suggest overdose incidents account for just over 4.5 per cent of all emergency calls.

Jason Gillingham estimates this figure would be likely to at least double if it included the calls which stemmed from the use of alcohol and drugs.

Last year's percentages mirror those from the previous year, which were based on a total 179,959 emergency calls.

It is estimated the incidents recorded in this audit alone cost the NHS in the region of £82,720.

This suggests that over one year, the East of England NHS community may have spent as much as £10,504,126 on alcohol, medication and drug-related incidents in 2006.

Males account for two-thirds of the figures, while around a third of all patients were aged between 18 and 25.

Of the total sample of alcohol and drug-related calls to paramedics, the proportion of 'underage' drinkers was 7.4pc.

Almost a third of all patients included in the audit were known to the ambulance service as having a 'history' or either alcohol or drug abuse.

25-year-old male. Sustained head injury after falling from push bike whilst under the influence of alcohol.

58-year-old male. Fell down flight of concrete steps following consumption of excess alcohol.

24-year-old female. Assaulted by partner after drinking session.

14-year-old male. Had consumed a lot of alcohol. Slumped in doorway when refused entry to club.

49-year-old male. Fell asleep during cooking after drinking alcohol. Caused house fire.

40-year-old male. Pedestrian hit by drunk driver. Suffered multiple severe injuries.

56-year-old female. Fell into manhole on night out drinking. Sustained possible fractures to shoulder and ankle.

36-year-old male. Stabbed in the eye on night out drinking.

19-year-old female. Found lying in central reservation surrounded by beer cans.

18-year-old male. Shot in eye with BB gun whilst drinking at house party.

25 year old male. Hit in head by hockey stick. Drunken friends messing about.

16-year-old female. Drunk in supermarket car park.

17-year-old female. 10 weeks pregnant. Punched in the stomach whilst out drinking.

78-year-old male. In police custody. Happily drunk.