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Experts fear US opioid crisis could spread to Europe

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Drug users lay passed out along a street in a South Bronx neighborhood in New York City on October 6, 2017. (Getty Images)

Health experts have warned that the opioid crisis in the United States, which is responsible for America's deadliest drug epidemic in decades, may spread to Europe.

Europe should heed the threat from the US opioid crisis, as both regions have seen rises in prescription painkillers and drug overdose deaths, experts say.

"We (in Europe) are mindful of all the facets of the US conversation, but where we start on this is a very similar increase in prescription rates of opioid medicines," Cathy Stannard, a consultant in pain medicine, told the Lisbon Addictions 2017 conference on Thursday.

The "undoubted public health disaster of misuse of prescription opioids" in the US had led European countries to scrutinize the risks that patients become addicted, or subsequently turn to heroin, she said.

US drug overdose deaths in 2016 continued to climb despite ongoing efforts to stem the epidemic, according to the latest government numbers.

Overall drug overdose deaths in the US reached about 64,000 last year, up from 52,000 in 2015. 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, said there is also 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."

Christopher Jones, who works at the US Department of Health researching the opioid addiction, said there was a similar trend in the US, where new variations of synthetic opioids like 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."

US President Donald Trump will order his health secretary to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency on Thursday.

Trump’s directive would allow some grant money to be used for a broad array of efforts to combat opioid abuse, and would ease certain laws and regulations to address it.

However, the move does not on its own release any money to deal with the drug abuse. Trump he has so far taken limited action to carry out a pledge he made when he assumed office to make tackling opioid abuse one of his top priorities.

The president promised in August to declare a “national emergency” on opioids, which would have triggered the rapid allocation of federal funding to address the issue.

But he did not sign a formal declaration designating it as such, allowing the prospect to languish amid resistance in his administration about making an open-ended commitment of federal funds to deal with a crisis that has shown no signs of abating.

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