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Drug-related deaths in England and Wales at highest ever level

Two-thirds of drug-related deaths in 2019 were due to misuse

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales are at their highest since records began, with 4,393 deaths from drug poisoning in 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said.

This figure remains “broadly similar” to that recorded in 2018 – when the ONS registered 4,359 deaths linked to drug poisoning, it said in its report on Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2019 registrations, published yesterday (October 14).

The ONS figures include drug poisoning deaths caused by drug abuse and dependence but also by accidents, suicides and complications of drugs misuse.

Drug abuse

Following a pattern that has, the ONS said, been consistent for the last decade, two-thirds of 2019 drug poisoning deaths – 2,883 out of 4,393 – were linked to the misuse of drugs.

The north east of England registered the highest level of deaths caused by drug misuse – 95 deaths per million people – the ONS said.

Ben Humberstone, ONS deputy director of health analysis and life events said yesterday that “almost half of all drug-related deaths involved opiates such as heroin and morphine”.

However, cocaine-related deaths across England and Wales stood at 708 in 2019, rising for the eighth consecutive year to its highest figure yet, according to the ONS report.

The report also showed that, in line with developments over the past decade, rates of drug-related deaths were significantly higher in the most deprived parts of England and Wales than in the least deprived.

Commission naloxone service

Rachel Britton, director of pharmacy at charity We Are With You – which offers support to those dealing with issues related to drugs, alcohol or mental health – told C+D yesterday that: “Pharmacy plays a massive role in supporting people who misuse drugs and we couldn’t do our role as drug treatment providers without the support of community pharmacy colleagues.”

Pharmacies in England and Wales could also be commissioned to deliver a naloxone service, Dr Britton added.

“If pharmacies were funded to provide naloxone for people who come in for needle exchange, for example, then they could very well be saving someone’s life,” she said.

“We do train some of our community pharmacies and their staff on how to administer naloxone and I would encourage any community pharmacy to seek that training.”

Graham Parsons, chief pharmacist at Turning Point – a charity that works across areas including substance misuse – also offers training to community pharmacies on delivering take-home naloxone services “in order to make it even more accessible”, he told C+D yesterday.

“Widescale distribution of naloxone kits which can be used to save someone’s life if they overdose from heroin or other opioids is also key to preventing deaths,” Mr Parsons added.

Harm-reduction advice

Roz Gittins, director of pharmacy at Humankind – a charity that provides services to meet health and social needs – told C+D yesterday that: “Pharmacies have a significant role in offering harm-reduction advice”.

For instance, they can warn cocaine users about dangerous drug interactions, such as with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, she said.

Pharmacists dispensing substitute medication such as methadone and buprenorphine should also “ensure that the doses being dispensed are optimised and that the person is aware of the risk of accidental overdose if they do use on top,” Ms Gittins added.

Alternative services needed

Some pharmacies already offer needle exchange and supervised consumption services. However, Mohammed Fessal, chief pharmacist at Change, Grow, Live – whose services include support with drug and alcohol addiction – told C+D yesterday that more needs to be done.

While these services support “the reduction in opioid drug-related deaths, [they] have been in place for many years and as drug-related deaths have increased during this time, it suggests other measures are needed to make a difference,” he said.

Mr Fessal also argued that the introduction of services such as take-home naloxone, hepatitis C testing and alcohol brief intervention, could help reduce the number of drug-related deaths.

“This is especially important when considering that, for many people not involved in structured treatment, pharmacies may be the only point of engagement they have with healthcare professionals,” Mr Fessal said.

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