NHS data: overdose deaths reach record high as opioid abuse reaches epidemic proportions

The UK rates for all mortalities (including hospitalisations) are falling, but the magnitude of mortality increases during 2015 and 2016 suggests that this is happening too slowly to make a difference

Overdose deaths reached a record high in England and Wales last year, rising 8% to 5,358, according to the Department of Health. This is the highest level ever recorded for the year ending December 2016.

London and the East Midlands saw the sharpest rises, with deaths of people aged over 60 increasing by a quarter. Rates of opioid overdose (more than 535 deaths in England and Wales last year) in London and the region were the highest since records began in 2000.

In August 2016, the George Institute for Global Health estimated that more than 6,000 people died in the UK from a suspected fatal opioid overdose in the 12 months to September 2015. The UK police said at the time that the strain on police services was increasing, particularly in the West Midlands and Hertfordshire, where opioid abuse was accelerating.

The West Midlands police revealed that they had seized more than 22m doses of opioids between 2014 and 2015.

In their annual report, the NHS has called for more public awareness and training on the dangers of opioids and urged doctors and pharmacists to prescribe and dispense safer drugs.

Annabelle Etre, deputy director of the Centre for Addiction Medicine at the University of Oxford, says: “Overdose deaths are not falling fast enough to arrest the escalating toll. There is a growing concern that the task of reversing the opioid epidemic is too big to be solved by public health policy alone and that a medical, law enforcement and social care solution needs to be considered.”

The number of hospitalisations for heroin and opioid misuse is also rising, although the sharpest rises are in older people. The number of hospitalisations in England and Wales rose 9% to 11,191 in 2016 – the highest figure since the figures began in 1996. The proportion of younger patients with opioid-related hospitalisations fell slightly. The proportion of patients aged over 60 has risen from 15% to 21% during the same period.

In 2014 the George Institute for Global Health, the National Alliance for Drug and Alcohol Research and The Office for National Statistics estimated that the UK had a million heroin and opioid users. Of these, 48% were on prescription; 48% were dependent on prescription opioid analgesics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone; and 20% had illegal heroin and opioid use.

Although deaths are rising from all ages, rates among young people are falling more slowly than those for older people. The yearly figures are calculated from death certificates and are based on deaths where documentation is available. The deaths of people using other substances, including alcohol and cocaine, are not taken into account.

Overdose deaths are often ascribed to the disintegration of family life for new drug users. With many middle-class young people trying drugs, the number of deaths among young heroin users is falling in part because of greater legalisation of non-hard drug use, but it is also because users are using less of the drug.

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