'Belgian' painkiller fentanyl increasingly popular in home country

Belgium has been engaged in a high-profile war on drugs for some time, with cocaine taking centre stage. Meanwhile, a much more harmful and deadly drug is on the rise: fentanyl, an extremely heavy 'homemade' painkiller that has already wreaked havoc in the United States.

Last year, an estimated 70,000 Americans died due to a fentanyl overdose. The US has been struggling with a real epidemic for some years, believed to be the result of overly broad or liberal prescriptions by doctors. As the number of heavy painkillers users increased, more pharmaceutical companies also wanted to enter the growing market, with commercial interests proving more important than medical ones.

Many people turned to the illegal drug market when US doctors started prescribing more cautiously again. Fentanyl is still a legal drug, but its use is entirely out of control in the US. Americans smoke and inject the painkiller or mix it with heroin.

In 2019, US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson had to pay a 515 million euro fine for its part in the fentanyl epidemic. After all, the late Paul Janssen, founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica (part of Johnson & Johnson), synthesised the drug in 1960. The Belgian marketed fentanyl as a painkiller for cancer patients, up to eighty times more powerful than morphine.

Meanwhile, the heavy painkiller is also on the rise in Belgium, as the Belgian National Institute for Sickness and Disability Insurance (NIHDI) found that the number of Belgians using fentanyl has shifted from about 40,000 in 2005 to almost 70,000 in 2020. In addition, the number of daily prescription doses of fentanyl rose from 4.7 million to 10 million over the same period. The number of people taking the painkiller frequently is probably even higher, as the addictive painkiller is also often sold illegally.

Fight against drugs

Belgian customs are increasingly looking for people trafficking fentanyl, as they have recorded a 10% increase in fentanyl in Belgium. To combat its spread, the federal government is investing 880,000 euros in the fight against drug trafficking by purchasing better detection and analysis equipment.

Furthermore, a working group was recently set up to propose a national action plan for tackling the use of fentanyl and other opioid painkillers (tramadol, tilidine, oxycodone and piritramide). Besides the Federal Public Health Service, the NIHDI, the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products and the provincial medical commissions are also part of the working group.

The working group will work around three priority themes in the coming period: promoting rational medical use of opioid analgesics, reducing inappropriate prescription opioid painkillers, and scientifically investigating the use of opioids in Belgium.


© Craig Kohlruss/Fresno Bee via ZUMA Press Wire



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