Northern Ireland

International drug website shut down after BBC probe

Matthew Davidson
Image caption Matthew Davidson had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism

A BBC investigation into the illegal sale of prescription-only medicines over the internet has resulted in an international website being shut down.

Action was taken after a 26-year-old County Down man took his own life using drugs he had purchased online.

Matthew Davidson had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

After attempting suicide several times with medicine prescribed in Northern Ireland, Matthew turned to the internet to buy Tramadol.

It is an extremely strong pain medication that requires a prescription in the UK.

The drug was sent from Egypt, where no prescription is required - just a credit card. For legal reasons we are unable to give details of the website.

The agency that regulates pharmaceutical drugs, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said it was now pursuing an alleged doctor in Egypt.

While the man did nothing illegal, buying prescription-only medicines without a doctor's signature within the UK is a crime.

Matthew's father, Mike Davidson, found him after he overdosed.

"We broke down the door and found him lying on the floor," he said.

"He was already in a coma, his pupils had dilated and he was breathing very deeply. I realised what had happened and just put my arms around him.

"I am just really thankful that I had the opportunity to be with him when he died. It could have been very different if a policeman had come and said he had taken his own life."

In their home, near Hillsborough, Mike and his wife, Lynore, described how their son had struggled with depression.

Cash-on-delivery

The family, who are originally from South Africa, came to live here in 2004. It was only then, when Matthew was 19, that he was diagnosed with Asperger's.

Image caption The family want to highlight what they describe as a major failing in our legislation

He had been receiving help from a psychologist based at his local health trust. But after that treatment stopped, his condition became gradually worse.

Lynore Davidson said that while her son had a lot of problems, he was a good person.

"He was shy, anxious and didn't like change," she said.

"He didn't like crowds or mixing with new people. He meant everything to me, I loved him more than anything else, we just miss him every day."

The family want to highlight what they describe as a major failing in our legislation.

Currently, internet companies registered outside the country can sell and deliver medicine to addresses in the UK. This includes medicine that normally requires a prescription.

These medicines can include morphine-based drugs that can kill if taken incorrectly.

At no time was Matthew asked by the alleged doctor in Egypt to complete a health questionnaire, according to correspondence seen by the BBC.

Instead, he was asked for his credit card details and advised that cash was accepted on delivery. The package arrived at Matthew's door within three days.

According to his father, purchasing powerful and dangerous drugs is too easy.

"If you know what you want and you have the website, credit card and a post code, it can be delivered within days. It's as easy as buying a book from Amazon," he said.

The BBC has tracked down the Egyptian company that sent the drugs. We have attempted to contact the alleged doctor, but no-one has returned our calls or e-mails. We have also contacted the company involved and have had no response.

We brought this information to the MHRA. The doctor, who at this stage cannot be named for legal reasons, is known to them. Their head of intelligence is Nimo Ahmed.

"We've since identified four more websites, one of which was brought to our attention by BBC Northern Ireland," he said.

"We are now pursuing these websites and closing them down. We have also contacted the Egyptian authorities, and highlighted what this gentleman is doing is illegal in the UK.

Autopsy

"We've told them that it led to the tragic death of this young man. We have asked the Egyptian authorities to consider taking action."

Mr Ahmed explained there is a loophole in UK legislation that allows this practice to continue.

"It is very difficult to police. While prescription-only medicine can only be obtained in the UK with a prescription, if you go on the internet you can access lots of controlled drugs quite easily," he said.

"It needs to be stopped and we are doing our best to highlight to the public, the dangers involved. Some of these drugs are fake and could kill."

The Davidsons have written to 10 Downing Street and Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley, appealing for help.

While both conveyed their condolences, they said current legislation prevents them from taking action.

The family's MP is Jeffrey Donaldson.

"The government needs to recognise this is a problem and it's a matter we need to be dealing with," he said.

"Mr Cameron talks about the big society. Well the big society ought to be dealing with this issue and protecting the most vulnerable in our society."

Matthew Davidson's autopsy concluded he was poisoned by Tramadol.

Meanwhile, his family say they will continue with their campaign.

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