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New warnings over ‘lost tribe’ of prescription drug addicts

Expert calls for a 'national strategy' to address public health issue

06 April, 2017 — By Tom Foot

Dr Farrukh Alam

EXPERTS have warned of “emerging public health concern” over prescription drug addiction.

Dr Farrukh Alam, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Central North West London NHS Trust, said there has been another boom in “harmful” use of painkillers and psychoactive drugs.

Dr Alam gave evidence to a parliamentary committee that published findings this week, raising concerns about a “lost tribe” of addicts who are not getting help.

Dr Alam said: “Whilst it is widely recognised that long-term, and often inappropriate usage of psychoactive prescription drugs is harmful, prescriptions for sleeping pills and opioid pain­killers have risen dramatically during recent years. Despite this, we have no real data estimating those who may require treatment once problems such as dependence and withdrawal arise. A national strategy is a first step to addressing this emerging public health concern.”

Withdrawals from benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, antidepressants and other psychiatric medications can be severe and last for months. Popular prescription opioid painkillers include codeine and tramadol, while xanax, valium and diazepam and the most commonly prescribed “benzos” for anxiety and sleeping problems.

There has been a 500 per cent rise in prescription rates in the past 25 years but there are no NHS services that provide specialist support. REST – run by charity MIND in Camden in Camden Town – is one of a handful of charities in the country providing help specifically with benzodiazepine addiction.

On its website, REST manager Melanie Davis said: “It can get so bad that people feel suicidal. Most are unable to work, people have lost relationships. They’ve found it harder to come off this than heroin. It is profoundly distressing for people undergoing the experience.”

Ms Davis, who has been manager for 20 years, said the key to managing withdrawals was avoiding stressful situations and “other substances”, while trying to put energy and power into “worrying about themselves”. She said GPs “need to understand that people are going through a great deal of pain” and provision must be put in place for slow and gradual withdrawal from the drugs.

Research has found that stronger opioids such as morphine and fentanyl – which are normally prescribed to patients with severe conditions like cancer or who are in the final stages of their life – rose by 466 per cent nationally in a decade. However, 12 per cent of these prescriptions are for patients with severe physical pain.

The party parliamentary group for prescribed-drug dependence, set up last October, called this week for a national helpline and a specialist website.

Harry Shapiro, director of online information service DrugWise, introduced the committee’s findings as a “public health disaster” that was killing hundreds of people a year and ruining the lives of millions more.

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