Former state pathologist says not enough is being done to tackle abuse of 'killer' Tramadol

Former State Pathologist for Northern Ireland Professor Jack Crane at work in 2004.
Seanín Graham

THE former state pathologist for Northern Ireland has warned that not enough is being done to tackle the abuse of the prescription drug Tramadol - which he has branded a "major killer".

Professor Jack Crane has called for the substance to be re-classified as a a Class A drug, saying it is as dangerous as heroin.

Speaking to the Irish News, the internationally renowned pathologist also spoke of his concerns about the massive numbers of prescriptions being issued for the drug and said he had raised the matter with the north's chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride.

"People are able to get, not just Tramadol but, tranquilisers and sleeping tablets - and these are being issued without patients being reviewed regularly," he said.

"Obviously there is a lot of Tramadol taken illicitly but my understanding there's probably more of it being prescribed in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.

"It seems to me the less is prescribed there's going to be less of it around.

"The effects of Tramadol and its withdrawal are the same as the effects of morphine because it's a similar type of drug. I don't think people fully realise the risks of addiction and then trying to come off it.

"The difficulty is that people with chronic pain are probably prescribed it for a prolonged period of time."

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Figures obtained by the Irish News reveal that more than 2.2 million Tramadol-related drugs were dispensed in the north between 2013 and 2017.

However, this figure may be an underestimate as it excludes prescriptions issued by hospitals after a patient is discharged.

Professor Crane said that while he accepted the pressure GPs are under and that it may be "often just easy" for prescriptions to be issued, a "knock-on" effect was being felt.

"I feel very sorry for people who've got chronic incapacitating disease, chronic back pain and so forth and they can't get surgery. The only alternative is to put them on strong painkillers," he added.

A spike in the number of deaths linked to the drug - there were more than 30 in 2016 - prompted Professor Crane to contact Dr Michael McBride about its reclassification last year.

"I wanted to flag up we were seeing this as a major killer in Northern Ireland," he said.

Despite his plea, the retired pathologist - who stepped down in 2014 after 24 years in post but continues to do research - said he is not hopeful about its status being increased from a Class C to Class A substance.

"I have a real concern about the number of drug deaths we are seeing in Northern Ireland - every week we are seeing three or four. I don't know what the answer is," he added.

"I just don't think there is enough being done - I feel deeply frustrated."

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