Deaths caused by the drug fentanyl are on the rise, an independent advisory board has warned.
At least 135 registered deaths in the UK were related to fentanyl – a synthetic opioid – in 2017, compared to eights death in 2008, according to the report.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) warned that there is an increasing risk of fentanyl or its analogues being added to heroin sold illegally in the UK.
Drug users face a high risk of accidental overdose if fentanyl is combined with street heroin, as the powerful opioid is much more potent and very small amounts can cause severe clinical effects or death.
— Owen Bowden-Jones (@OwenBowdenJones) January 3, 2020
The advisory board has called for a full review of international drug strategy approaches to fentanyl markets, particularly in America, where its introduction to the heroin supply has been blamed for a high number of deaths.
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, chair of ACMD, said the emergence of fentanyl onto the UK drug market was of “great concern” as it can cause life-threatening harms, including rapid overdose.
“We must remain vigilant in protecting the public from this risk,” he said.
“To respond to this emerging threat, we must carefully examine the lessons learnt in other countries, particularly the US and Canada, to understand and implement effective interventions.
“Improved monitoring of these drugs across the UK will also assist in building a more accurate understanding of the problem and potential solutions.
“Fentanyl and its analogues represent a significant new challenge and action is now needed.”
Fentanyl is a licensed medicine originally introduced as a method of pain management, but has, like other opioids, become subject to misuse.
It can be 100 times more potent than the painkiller morphine, while carfentanil, a type of fentanyl used to tranquillise elephants, can be 10,000 times more powerful.
In July 2017, then home secretary Amber Rudd commissioned the ACMD to write a report on the risks of fentanyl following a spate of deaths linked to the drug.
Public Health England (PHE) began an urgent investigation following the surge in deaths and increased the availability of naloxone, an overdose antidote, to drug users at hostels and outreach centres.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are grateful to the ACMD for this report, which we will consider carefully.
”We have already commissioned a major independent review of drugs, looking at a wide range of issues, including enforcement, to inform our thinking about what more can be done to tackle harm from drugs.
“We are also moving at pace to recruit 20,000 extra police officers to fight all forms of crime and have launched a review of serious and organised crime to consider the powers, capabilities, governance and funding required to bolster our response to today’s threats, including drugs.”