LISBON (Reuters) – Europe should heed the threat from opioids responsible for America’s deadliest drug epidemic in decades as both regions have seen rises in prescription rates of such medicines, which can be a gateway to dangerous derivatives, experts said.
The U.S. epidemic has led to far more overdose deaths and already lasted much longer than previous drug crises, like crack cocaine in the 1980s, and health experts fear it will spread to Europe.
U.S. President Donald Trump was to declare the crisis a public health emergency on Thursday, senior administration officials said.
Cathy Stannard, a consultant in pain medicine, told the Lisbon Addictions 2017 conference that the “undoubted public health disaster of misuse of prescription opioids” in the U.S. had led to scrutiny of the risks that patients become addicted, or subsequently turn to heroin.
“We (in Europe) are mindful of all the facets of the U.S. conversation, but where we start on this is a very similar increase in prescription rates of opioid medicines.”
Christopher Jones, who works at the U.S. Department of Health researching the opioid addiction, said prescription opioids were driving the increase in U.S. deaths for many years.
“But we’ve seen stabilization in that since around 2011. Where we now see real change is in synthetic opioids,” he said.
Drug rings, especially from China, are producing more potent, dangerous variants of such opioids to hook new users.
Between 2000 and 2015, deaths in the U.S. from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a painkiller which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, rose 1,125 percent. In the same period deaths from all opioids rose 294 percent.
Overall drug overdose deaths in the U.S. reached about 64,000 last year, up from 52,000 in 2015, Jones said. More than half were related to opioids.
Europe’s overdose deaths rose for the third consecutive year in 2015 to 8,441 and 81 percent of them were related to opioids, which include heroin.
Europe’s Lisbon-based drugs monitoring agency (EMCDDA), which organized the conference, agreed there was a growing threat from synthetic opioids.
“We have seen in the last 18 months the rapid emergence of new highly potent synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl derivatives,” said EMCDDA scientific director Paul Griffiths. “Their potency means they pose a significant risk to those that consume them or are accidentally exposed to them.”
Jones said there was a similar trend in the U.S., where new variations of fentanyl coming from China were cropping up. “There is a lack of awareness of the drugs people are using, meaning they can’t protect themselves.”
Reporting By Axel Bugge, editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet