76 million Americans are estimated to suffer from chronic, acute, or post-surgical pain; however, the well-intended advocacy for the treatment of pain in the late 1990’s has resulted in a public health crisis caused by widespread use and misuse of opioids, painkilling drugs.
The results are staggering. While Americans amount to 5% of the global population; they consume 80% of opioids. The number of prescriptions filled for opioids increased from 174 million in 2000 to 257 million in 2009 and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that American deaths from opioids exceeded those from cocaine and heroin combined between 1999 and 2008.
“America is an epicenter of a potentially emerging worldwide epidemic,” wrote Dr. Brian Sites from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, US, in Anaesthesia. “The literature on prescription opioid abuse in the European Union is notably scarce; however, isolated reports of alarming incidences of prescription drug abuse within individual European Union countries are emerging.”
How can Europe learn from this? In comparison, consumption of opioids in the UK is similar to the US ten years ago. However, prescriptions have climbed consistently over the last decade. There is also a smaller illicit market in the UK, due as much to the lower price of heroin and the wider availability of across-the counter opioids.
“Lessons from the USA point to complex – and at times, uniquely American – conspiring forces,” said Dr. Cathy Stannard, from Macmillan Centre, Frenchay, UK in a second Anaesthesia paper. “However, vigilance in the form of international, standardized reporting of opioid-related harms represents a crucial first step in monitoring, and perhaps preventing, similar epidemics.”