How will the Opioid epidemic affect the UK?

29 Jan 2018

2017 saw clinicians become increasingly worried about the growing use of opioid painkillers; a prominent argument across social media platforms is that they have been prescribed too readily in recent years, with the number of patients admitted to hospital for taking an overdose of opioids more than doubling in the past decade.

Data from the NHS shows the number of people attending hospital with poisoning from prescription opioids such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl rising from 4,891 in 2005-2006 to 11,660 in 2016, in England alone. [1]

With such a high increase in opioid abuse, it is understandable that there is such strong concern and debate over the prescribing of these drugs – however, the debate remains whether fault sits with the medical professionals, or those they are trying to help.


How will this affect the UK?

After seeing how the opioid epidemic effected the US, the UK has been warned of the potential for a similar drug crisis. William Brownfield, Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, states the US crisis “came on very suddenly and very unexpectedly” and that the same could easily happen in Britain.

A recent report in The Guardian newspaper said pharmaceutical companies take the view that the issue surrounding opioid abuse ‘stems not from the prescribing of powerful painkillers but their misuse by those who are addicted’ – it is this kind of thinking that has led to serious talk about refusing people opioid treatment for their pain.

Many people first became exposed to opioids after having been prescribed them by their doctor, most of whom were middle class professionals and not the stereotypical addicts using illegal drugs generally linked to addiction. The issue surrounding opioid abuse, occurred when the prescription ran out. Those who were either experiencing significant amounts of pain or those who were addicted to opioids turned to illegal “dealers” to pick up cheaper and more dangerous substitutes.

Ambassador Brownfield says now is the time for the UK to halt any potential issues in their tracks. It is because of this that several Police Forces across the UK have already marked drugs such as Fentanyl, (a substance commonly added to illegal opioids such as heroin by street dealers in order to make it cheaper to produce), as extremely dangerous.

Despite a similar standard of living, patients in the UK receive less than half the pain medication as their US counterparts; while this may anger British patients suffering with severe pain conditions, physicians say it has helped avoid the wave of misuse and overdoses that plague the United States.

Although the UK has yet to face an epidemic of prescription drug misuse like that in the USA, there is still a need to invest in services, monitoring and education. There is not yet enough information, advice or support for those addicted to opioids, nor is there an as effective alternative for those experiencing high levels of chronic pain. The debate and challenge continues on the best way to provide effective pain relief to people who genuinely need it whilst restricting overuse and over-prescription before an epidemic of opioid misuse on the scale of the USA is seen in the UK.



[1] The Guardian – 09/13/17 “Overdoses on opioid painkillers more than double in a decade”.