Opioid-related deaths on the rise in UK

Image copyright John Moore Image caption Lauren Jones tried to save her boyfriend when she found him dead in his bed

A combination of the Drug Misuse Act, financial austerity and health improvements in England and Wales has contributed to the high number of opioid-related deaths in the UK.

According to new analysis of data from Public Health England’s drugs database, there was a 30% increase in 2017 over the previous year.

Almost 18,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the UK in 2017, the highest annual number ever recorded.

This compares with 6,400 deaths in England and Wales in 2015.

It also represents a rise of 75% compared with the 9,200 reported in 2011, the year NHS England began routinely recording opioid deaths.

Although more recent data is not yet available, looking at past deaths means that, at the current pace, it is likely the annual number of opioid deaths will reach over 20,000 in 2020.

Despite the rise in deaths, public awareness of the dangers of opioids continues to grow.

Image copyright Shutterstock Image caption The most common overdose symptom is death by overdose

Dr Janet Robinson, a GP, said she had been struck by how people who openly used drugs started to use other illicit substances, like heroin, alongside crystal meth, after being exposed to the opioid crisis.

She told the UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners’ annual conference how the friends of a young man she treated had overdosed in January.

His symptoms included wetting the bed, becoming agitated and constipated, and so he was rushed to hospital by ambulance where he was treated for an overdose.

He told his friends he had used a synthetic drug called Spice.

“I couldn’t understand that,” said Dr Robinson. “For somebody who was 15 years old, I wouldn’t have called them unfit to drive, I wouldn’t have called them unfit to cook, I wouldn’t have called them unfit to go on the internet… I would have called them unfit to get in a car.”

The lives of young people in particular have been touched by the epidemic.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption The scale of the opioid epidemic is concerning given the increase in access to the drug

At least 13,000 people under the age of 25 have died in the last four years.

The youngest was 17-year-old Lauren Jones, who died from a fentanyl overdose in January. Her boyfriend, 30-year-old Kyle Francis, died the next day.

They lived in Dorset and were both getting treatment to stop using painkillers.

Dr Robinson said there had been a “massive generational shift” and people with money to spend are now taking up the drug.

Surprise deaths from using methadone, which has become part of addiction treatment in the NHS, have also increased as heroin substitution programmes have been cut.

In 2011 the ratio of deaths due to fentanyl to other opioid overdoses was 0.43, compared with 0.71 in 2017.

While the volume of deaths from fentanyl has risen, there has been a reduction in deaths due to heroin, the most common type of opioid.

In the same period there has been a rise in the proportion of deaths due to heroin substitution, which has risen from around a quarter to 36%.

Public Health England says the report highlights a need for continued efforts to reduce opioid misuse and build community resilience to address deaths caused by opioids.

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