Image copyright Getty Images Image caption SIDS is the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome, but it isn’t usually a surprise to parents.
Like many medical disorders, we’re far more likely to consider a painkiller or cosmetic surgery than a surge in your child’s condition.
But in the 14 years since it emerged that newborn babies were being exposed to the huge health risks of ketamine in the hospital, the little-known drug has been the focus of the largest movement to halt its use.
We need to move faster to stop this being phased out, as there are indications that the nation’s leading killer of babies could be eradicated if it is simply restricted to a much smaller group of elderly and vulnerable patients.
The number of babies dying after being exposed to ketamine — also known as the doctor’s poison — has dropped from 800 a year to one or two a month over the past decade.
And the practice has even been referred to as “the nurse’s friend” rather than a concern about the child’s health because the poor quality of the drug makes it hard to tell the difference between it and a sedative.
Nearly three years after we launched the Blue Moon campaign to curb the sale of ketamine-containing drugs and called for a public inquiry into their use, the government is making some real progress.
The British Red Cross, neonatal experts and the Women’s and Children’s Trust are all calling for a crackdown on the sale of ketamine and similar drugs.
According to police figures and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, ketamine use among babies and young children was falling within the NHS as hospitals were beginning to spot it as a factor in the number of sudden infant deaths (SIDS).
The NHS trusts involved in the UK’s biggest investigations into the drugs’ sale said they hadn’t seen an increase in exposure to ketamine in recent years.
But the Health Protection Agency said ketamine was still widely sold over the counter.
Still, the first instance of it ever being listed in the UK’s regulations is an unexpected victory – and just the start of a battle against what is the pharmaceutical equivalent of recreational drugs – the bright red logo on the box on a bottle of drain cleaner or fast-acting anaesthetic.
Even more worrying is the fact that many of those still selling drugs have not changed their ways at all, despite repeated warnings from public health experts.
Many still insist they “can’t tell the difference” between ketamine and many of the most important painkillers.
“But there’s a difference in the absence of any effect, the regular problems with babies being admitted to intensive care, and the drug’s use among babies that are not ill,” said a spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Theresa May is the third prime minister in a row to support legislation forcing “non-prescribed drugs” to be listed in the UK’s drug classification system.
“We’re talking about new psychoactive substances in the same way we deal with new drugs,” the PM told parliament last week.
Last month, Tracey Crouch — the government’s junior health minister — took her own hard line with drug dealers following the push for legislation.
“I am calling on firms that supply ketamine to be held to account,” Ms Crouch said.
She is giving representatives of the companies that supply the drug two weeks to explain why the scheme was put in place, before bringing new measures into law to stop other drug paraphernalia being sold over the counter.
Though doctors and neonatal nurses have welcomed the announcement, some will be concerned that the government’s other stated intention to end the sale of ketamine and other drugs to young patients with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is arguably a slippery slope.
“You’ll never be able to get that bill signed off if you just focus on one part of the drugs, no matter how big of a problem it is,” said Kat Corrigan, director of the Children’s Society’s Drug Action Group.
“So, it needs to be broader than that, it needs to recognise other complex drugs as well.”
A review of treatment for bipolar disorder found that more than half of the patients with the condition were taking psychoactive drugs as a first line treatment.
The legal team working to force both ketamine and its analogue, another anti-depressant known as alpha-2-adrenergic agonist (beta2), to be listed in the UK’s drugs classification system welcomed the government’s plans.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Ketamine is widely used to treat depression in adults
But one issue that hasn’t been outlined so far is the chances that these two drugs could be reclassified from Schedule 1 to Schedule 4 in the future, making the existing sale of ketamine