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Norway: Many people die from an overdose of strong painkillers

02.11.2022 - There has been an increasing trend in overdose deaths as a result of strong painkillers with opioids in the period 2010 to 2018. This is according to a study done by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH).

The study is published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. In 2010, 30 percent of deaths were due to strong opioid painkillers, and 70 percent were due to heroin. In 2018, the distribution had changed to 60 and 40 per cent respectively.

"We do not know whether those who died had the medicines prescribed by a doctor, or obtained them in some other way," stresses project manager and senior researcher Linn Gjersing. She has carried out the study together with colleague and senior researcher Ellen Amundsen.

"At the same time, we see that other countries have experienced a corresponding increase in such deaths when there have been changes in prescribing practices. This may mean that those who died had it prescribed by a doctor. But it could also mean that people who have been prescribed the drug in Norway are increasingly reselling it on the illegal market, and that those who die have used the drug without a prescription," says Gjersing.

The researcher believes another possible explanation is increased imports from abroad, with sales on the illegal market. The researchers will look into this in more detail in the next study.

Another important finding in this study was differences in characteristics between those who died from an overdose of strong painkillers and those who died from heroin poisoning. In the first group, there was a greater proportion of women and the elderly (50 years and over). Moreover, they were somewhat better off financially (higher wealth, fewer in need of social assistance, more disability pensioners). Among those who died of heroin poisoning, a greater proportion were found outdoors and in public buildings, several lived in larger cities, and had recently been in drug treatment. Moreover, a larger proportion had been charged with offences.

Back problems, or having been exposed to accidents and injuries, were more common among those who died from poisoning with strong painkillers and who had visited a general practitioner/emergency room in the past year. Among those who died from heroin poisoning, there was a higher proportion with a drug addiction diagnosis.

"Many of the overdose prevention measures we have today are mainly aimed at preventing heroin overdoses. The findings in this study emphasize the need for measures that embrace a wider range. The measures should also detect those who are at risk of dying, and who have the characteristics of those who die from poisoning with strong painkillers," says Gjersing.

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