Call to monitor drugs as antidepressants kill 500 people a year

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Almost 5,000 people have died in a decade from poisoning related to antidepressant drugs, figures showed yesterday.

Almost 5,000 people have died in a decade from poisoning related to antidepressant drugs, figures showed yesterday.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that between 1993 and 2002 there were 4,767 deaths in England and Wales involving antidepressant overdoses. Around 80 per cent of these deaths were recorded as suicides, according to figures published in Health Statistics Quarterly.

Prescriptions for antidepressants have risen rapidly in recent years. In 1993 there were 10.8 million antidepressant prescriptions handed out by doctors in England and Wales. But by 2002, this figure had more than doubled to 26.3 million prescriptions.

Over the same period, deaths from antidepressant poisoning fluctuated, peaking at 540 deaths in 1996, after which deaths started to fall.

This drop came as the older type of drugs, known as tricyclic antidepressants, were increasingly replaced by the newer selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Research has shown that tricyclic drugs are more toxic in overdose, with two (dothiepin and amitriptyline) accounting for 75 per cent of antidepressant-related poisoning deaths.

Until 1998, tricyclic antidepressants were most commonly prescribed by GPs to treat depression. But since then the newer SSRIs, such as Prozac and Seroxat, have become more popular because they have fewer side-effects and lower toxicity.

The ONS found that tricyclic antidepressants were involved in the largest proportion of deaths - 89 per cent.

Deaths involving tricyclic drugs peaked at 506 in 1996, compared with just 18 involving SSRIs and six with other types of antidepressant.

Clare Griffiths, from the ONS, said: "Depression is an important public health problem with 5 to 10 per cent of the population estimated to be affected." She said there were around 400 to 500 deaths a year from antidepressant-related poisoning, with rates declining overall between 1993 and 2002.

The report concluded that the increase in death rates from other types of antidepressant suggested they might be more toxic than SSRIs. "It is important therefore to monitor the safety of these drugs in the future," the ONS said.

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