The number of people in the Netherlands prescribed heavy opiate painkillers has risen 55% in the past seven years, according research published by the Dutch health insurers association ZN.
By 2017, the last year for which figures are available, over one million people were being prescribed painkillers such as Oxycodon and Tramadol, and 218,000 people had been taking them for more than three months, ZN said.
The bulk of the increase – described a silent epidemic by some experts – is due to the use of Oxycodon, which is associated with thousands of deaths in the US.
Experts say the drugs, which are highly addictive, should only be prescribed long term to terminal cancer patients. In most cases, the drugs are prescribed by a family doctor and 60% of the patients are female.
The research was carried out on the basis of pharmacy invoices submitted to health insurers for payment.
Health minister Bruno Bruins said the rise in opioid use is ‘worrying’. ‘We are not yet in a situation like in the US but we do need to take steps,’ he said. ‘I want to deal with this before it has an impact on society and I will meet all the organisations involved next week.’
Last August, toxicology centre NVIV said the number of people overdosing on the powerful painkiller oxycodon in the Netherlands has gone up six fold in ten years.
In 2008 some 43 people overdosed on the drug, which is twice as powerful as morphine and highly addictive when used longer term. That figure jumped to 280 in 2017 and 215 in the first six months of 2018.
It is unclear how many of the overdoses resulted in death.