It would be “naive” to assume that the UK is immune to the opioid drug epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of people a year in the US, a leading public health expert has warned.
Pete Burkinshaw of Public Health England said British authorities need to be vigilant to the threat posed by drugs such as heroin, methadone and the highly potent painkiller fentanyl after four years of rising death tolls.
Health leaders are working on plans to respond to any repeat of the spate of 76 fentanyl-related deaths in the first few months of this year, a high proportion of which occurred in Yorkshire.
His warning echoed that of former Sheffield MP and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who in a blog this month said “we would be foolish to imagine that the UK is immune” to the US opioid epidemic.
Mr Clegg, a member of the The Global Commission on Drug Policy, wrote that in 2016, 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US, the vast majority involving opioids, with overdose now the leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States.
He said that in the UK, 90 people a week died as a result of drug use, the highest number on record, with 60 per cent involving a drug derived from the opium poppy or based on its chemistry.
The reason we need to be vigilant is that we are a global market. To assume we are immune to it would be naive.Pete Burkinshaw
Opiates, such as heroin and morphine, are chemical compounds extracted or refined from natural plant matter, while opioids, such as fentanyl and methadone, are synthesised.
The number of heroin deaths had already been rising in the UK since 2012, a trend thought to be caused by the deaths of a increasing numbers of heroin users who started in the 1980s, combined with a rise in the street-level purity of the drug.
In 2016 there were 213 drugs poisoning deaths in Yorkshire linked to opiates or opioids, down from 244 the previous year, after three years of ever-higher death tolls.
Mr Burkinshaw’s organisation is bidding to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and caused the death of the singer Prince last year, around the country after this year’s deaths in Yorkshire.
He said the UK was currently a long way behind the US, where the epidemic was caused by large numbers of people being prescribed legal opiates, meaning many became addicted and were driven into the hands of drug dealers.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “We have quite a long history of not following the US. We didn’t get the same methamphetamine problems or the same crack cocaine problem.
“So we should not assume we are going to follow this route, but the reason we need to be vigilant is that we are a global market. To assume we are immune to it would be naive.”
Public Health England say that reports of fentanyl-related deaths in Yorkshire and the rest of the UK have “almost completely dried up” after large numbers were reported in early 2017.
It is thought the deaths were as a result of the drug, which can be legally prescribed as a painkiller, being mixed with heroin, though it is unclear whether they all came from the same batch.
Mr Burkinshaw said feedback from street interviews suggested that a small cohort of drug users were actively seeking the drug out, and that dealers were motivated by profit to supply fentanyl.
He said: “There are all sorts of people scratching their heads about why dealers would want to put something so dangerous in their product and potentially kill their clients. The most compelling argument is that the profit margin is considerable.”
Public health officials are now working with toxicologists, pathologists and coroners to make sure information about future fentanyl cases is passed on as quickly as possible.
They also want to improve access to the opiate antidote naloxone and do more to reach out to drug user who may not be using formal drug treatment programmes.
The National Crime Agency (NCA), which is investigating the use of fentanyl and how it came to be distributed in Yorkshire, has accused dealers of playing “Russian roulette” with users’ lives.
A raid at a drug-mixing facility in Morley, Leeds, in April resulted in three people being charged with conspiracy to supply and export class A drugs. They face trial next year.
Though it has given the current total of fentanyl deaths nationwide in 2017 as 76, the agency, dubbed the British FBI, will not say how many are linked to Yorkshire and the Humber.