The death toll in England and Wales from drug overdoses reached a record high in 2017, rising threefold year-on-year to 789, amid what has been labelled an epidemic by health experts.
The latest annual figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal one in ten deaths was directly attributable to drug misuse, raising concerns over the rising number of deaths from drug use.
The death toll last year, up from 440 in 2016, was 789, said the ONS. This was a record high, and was mostly the result of an alarming increase in heroin and fentanyl deaths. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is used to treat conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It is concerning to see that the most concerning increase was among those who died while taking fentanyl. This is due to many more people becoming exposed to fentanyl. In 2017 there were a record 566 deaths attributable to fentanyl, compared to 141 in 2016,” said Amanda Collins, chief executive of the drug charity Addaction.
“Despite this rise, the estimated number of fentanyl-related deaths is less than half of the 1,754 deaths attributable to synthetic opioids as a whole.”
To this end, the government is pledging to drive down addiction to opioids, which has been identified as the most serious killer in the country.
“Gaps in the treatment system for heroin addicts and the over-prescribing of opioid painkillers for back pain and other conditions have fuelled the opioid epidemic in the UK,” said the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
“The government is proud to be cutting the number of deaths by action on both demand and supply. With nearly 600 hospitals using more painkillers than they are clinically needed, the NHS must get on top of the problem before more lives are lost.”
Data on opiate-related deaths shows a disturbing rise in those who died from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Figures show as many as 156 deaths in 2017 were specifically attributed to fentanyl, compared to just 37 deaths in 2016.
Collins said the surge in fentanyl deaths was partly due to more people using heroin that contains fentanyl, which means more people are being exposed to the drug. The ONS data shows there were 792 deaths on heroin in 2017, an increase of 63% on the previous year.
“We have a global prescription addiction crisis. Opioids are cheap, freely available and, when used appropriately, safe,” said Dr Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the Commons health select committee.
“This is clearly having an impact here in the UK, with a record number of deaths involving fentanyl last year,” she said.
Wollaston said the new data showed more needed to be done to tackle the prescribing of opioids by GPs and other medical professionals.
“Drugs are clearly a killer – it cannot be overemphasised – but targeting the prescribing side of the problem rather than the drugs themselves is surely the best way to tackle this and we must start now,” she said.
The ONS said only 3.7% of all drug deaths last year were linked to cocaine, compared to 36.8% of all deaths linked to heroin.
The general secretary of the Royal College of GPs, Prof Maureen Baker, said recent moves by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to fund opioid treatments aimed at people with chronic conditions led to a drop in deaths from opiates.
“This is encouraging and we hope that we can use this research to improve guidance for GPs on prescribing opioids. Too often doctors are unfairly blamed for the outcomes of their patients, and this can be particularly true in the case of patients with chronic conditions who are often prescribed Opioids to manage pain.
“It’s important that doctors have the best tools and information to support patients with chronic conditions in managing their pain properly, including using the new, evidence-based morphine overdose strategy which is based on prescribing a small dose of immediate release morphine.”