A pragmatic harm reduction approach to manage a large outbreak of wound botulism in people who inject drugs, Scotland 2015

Kirsten M.A. Trayner, Amanda Weir, Andrew McAuley, Gauri Godbole, Corinne Amar, Kathie Grant, Gillian Penrice, Kirsty M Roy

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People who inject drugs (PWID) are at an increased risk of wound botulism, a potentially fatal acute paralytic illness. During the first 6 months of 2015, a large outbreak of wound botulism was confirmed among PWID in Scotland, which resulted in the largest outbreak in Europe to date.

A multidisciplinary Incident Management Team (IMT) was convened to conduct an outbreak investigation, which consisted of enhanced surveillance of cases in order to characterise risk factors and identify potential sources of infection.

Between the 24th of December 2014 and the 30th of May 2015, a total of 40 cases were reported across six regions in Scotland. The majority of the cases were male, over 30 and residents in Glasgow. All epidemiological evidence suggested a contaminated batch of heroin or cutting agent as the source of the outbreak. There are significant challenges associated with managing an outbreak among PWID, given their vulnerability and complex addiction needs. Thus, a pragmatic harm reduction approach was adopted which focused on reducing the risk of infection for those who continued to inject and limited consequences for those who got infected.

The management of this outbreak highlighted the importance and need for pragmatic harm reduction interventions which support the addiction needs of PWID during an outbreak of spore-forming bacteria. Given the scale of this outbreak, the experimental learning gained during this and similar outbreaks involving spore-forming bacteria in the UK was collated into national guidance to improve the management and investigation of future outbreaks among PWID.
Original languageEnglish
Article number36
Number of pages7
JournalHarm Reduction Journal
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2018


  • wound botulism, people who inject drugs, outbreak investigation, harm reduction
  • Heroin Dependence/epidemiology
  • Wound Infection/epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors
  • Male
  • Analgesics, Opioid/chemistry
  • Risk Management
  • Scotland/epidemiology
  • Young Adult
  • Botulism/epidemiology
  • Harm Reduction
  • Heroin/chemistry
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Disease Outbreaks/prevention & control
  • Drug Contamination


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