What is needle spiking, what travelers should know: ‘You always think it won’t happen to you’

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Micaela looked alarmed when she turned to me at the bar and told me she thought she might have been needle spiked, or injected with drugs.

Prior to her move to London in September for graduate school, my friend Micaela, 27, received a warning from a friend in Germany about the prevalence of spiking throughout Europe – either by slipping a drug into a drink or injecting drugs into someone’s body with a hypodermic needle.

The phenomena of needle spiking gained attention across the United Kingdom during a “sudden increase across the country in October 2021,” according to a recent report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.

Micaela, whose last name isn’t included due to the nature of her experience, hadn’t even taken a sip of her drink when she felt the jab in her hip. But she knew something was wrong within five minutes. She became woozy, dizzy and couldn’t see straight. She immediately told me that she wasn’t feeling well.

Micaela doesn’t remember what happened after that, but she suddenly collapsed to the floor among a group of partiers standing in a semi-circle around her limp body. She woke up quickly, but fearing a stranger would pick her up, I scooped my arms under her shoulders and carried her to the exit.

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Who is targeted by needle spiking?

Two types of spiking are prevalent: Drink spiking, where someone puts drugs or alcohol into a person’s drink without consent, and needle spiking, where someone stealthily injects the victim.

With drink spiking, it could include putting alcohol into a non-alcoholic drink, or adding drugs, like tranquilizers, amphetamines or others.

“This is an explosive cocktail,” said Marco Antonio Jiménez, a criminologist and police officer with the Mossos d’Esquadra in Spain, where dozens of needle-spiking cases have been reported so far this year.

The motive behind needle-spiking doesn’t seem always to be sexual assault, Jiménez said. People seem to be targeted for a robbery, or for the sake of instilling intimidation and fear, he said.

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U.K. police data shows needle incidents typically involve female students in their twenties and occurred in pubs, clubs and festivals, although house parties also pose a risk because perpetrators can feel empowered by a lack of surveillance. However, this is not just a “girl’s problem,” said Colin Mackie, co-founder of Spike Aware UK, an organization raising awareness of the issue since 2017. Mackie’s son Greg died in a spiking-related incident in 2017.

In a 2021 YouGov survey, 11% of women and 6% of men in the U.K. said they had been spiked.

“I felt embarrassed,” said Oscar Buss, 18, who says he was needle-spiked in Watford, England, in August. “People didn’t believe me.” When the doctor wasn’t convinced Buss, a man, could have been spiked, a male nurse who said he had once been spiked vouched for Buss to receive a necessary blood test.

Interestingly, many of the injections don’t contain a drug at all. The U.K. National Police Chiefs’ Council started toxicology testing in Dec. 2021, and by August 2022, 57% of more than 624 samples contained a drug of no concern or no drug at all. Only 2% contained a drug that supports a needle-spiking incident

Is needle spiking still happening?

The threat of needle spiking inspired social media campaigns and young people across the U.K. boycotted nighttime venues in October 2021.

“It seemed to be spreading like wildfire,” Mackie said. Over 175,000 people signed a petition to the U.K. government demanding that nightclubs must legally search guests upon entry. (Parliament debated the petition in November 2021 and deemed decisions for searches should be left to local authorities.)

Nearly one year later, continued reports of needle spiking across Europe have driven the need for awareness and action against the violent attacks during a post-pandemic time when people are craving fun and new experiences.

“There has been a knock-on effect,” Mackie said of the spread of the threat beyond the U.K. across France, Spain and Germany.

“There has not been enough effort to understand how common spiking incidents are, the motive of the perpetrators or the impact on victims,” Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson, said to USA TODAY via email.

Are tourists at a higher risk of needle spiking?

For anyone traveling or studying abroad who potentially hasn’t encountered the threat before, being aware that needle-spiking is a very real possibility is the most important thing, according to Mackie.

He added that tourists have been targets of spiking because they’re often carrying passports, cash, or other valuables. And the holiday season poses a high risk, he said, as people attend frequent parties and travel increases.

But it’s not about living in fear, Mackie added. Know the symptoms of spiking: dizziness, confusion or loss of consciousness and unusual behavior such as lack of self-control.

Travel safety tips

Make a plan: It’s important to make a plan of action before a night out in case an attack happens, including never putting your drink down (make sure you can see your drinks being poured and transported to you), using the buddy system (especially in unfamiliar venues), saving international emergency numbers (999 in the U.K.), and looking up local hospitals just in case.

“It’s easy to think about what would have happened … in the 20 minutes I was looking for my friends (when I arrived at the bar),” Micaela recounted in an interview for USA TODAY. “If I hadn’t known about needle spiking, I wouldn’t have thought twice about that prick.”

Report the incident: If in a pub or club, tell a member of the venue staff right away if you or a friend may have been spiked, Mackie said, and keep talking to them through the situation. And, most importantly, go to the hospital right away and report the attack to local authorities.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council reported 1,032 cases of needle injection between the beginning of September 2021 and the end of December 2021, most of which occurred in October 2021. As of October 2022, there have been no convictions for needle spiking and there are no charged cases awaiting trial, council spokesperson Sarah Wolf confirmed to USA TODAY.

Register with your embassy: For general travel safety, this enables embassy staff to contact travelers if there’s an emergency or unfolding crisis. U.S. citizens can also sign up with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

Consider travel insurance: Travel insurance is crucial for travelers who get sick or hurt abroad. Experts say that hospitals abroad may also want to hold personal credit cards on file or demand guarantees for payment before services are provided.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Needle spiking gained traction in Europe: What travelers should know

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