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Public Health England calls for action against growing UK opioid crisis threat

Published on 10/09/19 at 12:06pm
Public Health England

Public Health England (PHE) have stated that there are far too many people on prescribed drugs that can cause dependence and that more needs to be done to stop a US-style opioid crisis from arising in England.

Of the 12 million patients on potentially addictive drugs, half have been taking them for a year or more and over a fifth for more than three years.

The most common drugs being unnecessarily prescribed or bought are opioid painkillers, sleeping pills and benzodiazepines.

The largest numbers of patients are on antidepressants, something which, unlike painkillers, is justified. They are taken by 7.3 million people in England or 17% of the adult population with 930,000 of these being on them for more than three years.

The government review looked at five different categories – antidepressants, opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines, gabapentinoids for neuropathic pain and z-drugs for insomnia. Prescriptions for benzodiazepines have fallen after having risen dramatically over the past few years.

One of the authors of the study at PHE said: “The long-term prescribing of opioid medicines and benzodiazepines is not supported by guidelines and is not effective.”

The authors also delineated how poorer people were more likely to be at risk of long-term prescription: “Prescribing rates are higher and duration is longer in areas of deprivation in England.”

Although the scale and nature of opioid prescribing is not reflective of the crisis in North America, the NHS needs to take action now to prevent it from escalating any further.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists also commented on the report: “The findings of this review must be carefully listened to,” said Professor Wendy Burn, its President. “These drugs are important to the health and wellbeing of many patients when prescribed properly, but guidance for doctors needs to be updated to reflect the experience of patients who experience negative effects of withdrawal.”

Nik Kiran

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