Teenagers dice with death from adult drug cabinets

By Vanessa Bidois

TE KUITI - Takarangi "Laurie" Metekingi is a softly spoken man with a hard-hitting prediction about teenagers and prescription drugs.

The manager of a Te Kuiti drug and alcohol education service, Te Ngaru o Maniapoto, Mr Metekingi is adamant more young people will die unless they learn about the dangers of taking medication meant for adult ailments.

The deaths of two young women - and their recent coroner reports - has health workers and authorities searching for answers.

Sixteen-year-old Piopio College student Fiona Dawn Tapu died in August last year after taking more than 160 of her grandfather's tablets. A month before, Marie Aroha Heitia, also 16, took a fatal cocktail of pills and alcohol.

Mr Metekingi says another youth is lucky to be alive after overdosing on diabetic pills only a few weeks ago.

Peer pressure, relationship problems, trouble at home or school, or simply a desire to get high and have fun prompts some teenagers to raid the medicine cabinets of older family members.

Unfortunately, medication for some common health problems can be lethal in the hands of a young person.

"It's my assumption that they read the outside of the bottle and they think, 'If it's okay for other people, it's okay for me'," said Mr Metekingi.

"What they don't realise is that prescription drugs are given to people with particular illnesses - they're not for healthy young people."

Mr Metekingi, whose organisation delivers addiction programmes to clients as young as eight, said communities needed to take better care of their young people.

He admitted it might be hard to lock medicines away and watch teenagers 24 hours a day, but said it might be the only way to save their lives.

"There must be something we can do, and education is the best way that I know."

His sentiments are shared by Te Kuiti coroner Wallace Bain, who is calling on the Ministry of Health to see what more can be done to educate young people.

Mr Bain, who addresses a conference in the Waikato next week about the issue, is shocked by the "bulletproof" attitude of risk-taking teenagers.

Referring to the case of Marie Heitia, Mr Bain questioned why anyone would take gout treatment pills for a "buzz."

"Medically, you just get a slow death ... diarrhoea, vomiting, unconsciousness and death," said Mr Bain, a pharmacist.

He wants all parties - from doctors to teachers - to get together and share what they know about the problem.

The recent incident involving diabetic drugs was a case in point, as this was the first time he had heard about it. The problem was "huge" in other parts of the country as well.

"Here it's minor - it's just that we've had some unfortunate deaths."

Constable Alan Wells, of the Te Kuiti police, agreed that the problem was not peculiar to Te Kuiti - "it's no different from anywhere else."

Constable Wells said most teenagers who experimented with pills did not intend to kill themselves, and he worried that the police were not informed unless someone died.

Publicity was necessary even if people hated hearing the truth.

"We need to know, because if there is a problem, somebody's got to be able to try and work on it. The whole idea is to try and stop it ever happening again."

Sergeant Lance Tebutt, of the youth aid section of Hamilton police, said there were no facts or figures to point to any trends, but "just because it's not out in the open doesn't mean that there's not a problem there."

A Ministry of Health staff member said a copy of Mr Bain's report into the death of Fiona Tapu had still not arrived, but an investigation would consider his recommendations.

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