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Side-effects of drugs 'kill 600 a year'

An estimated 600 people die each year because of the side-effects associated with drugs commonly prescribed to treat arthritic pain, doctors said yesterday, writes Liz Hunt.

They renewed calls to GPs to reduce the number of prescriptions written for the drugs, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The drugs increase the risk of bleeding from ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract. About 30,000 people are admitted to hospital each year with the condition and about 3,000 of them die. Between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of fatalities are related to NSAIDs use.

Dr Duncan Colin-Jones, a gastroenterologist at the Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, said that GPs were aware of the risk, but there had been no drop in the number of prescriptions written. There are 24 million prescriptions written annually for NSAIDs. On average a GP will write 1,000 prescriptions for one month's treatment each year.

Dr Colin-Jones will present results of a new study to members of the British Society of Gastroenterology at their meeting in Warwick, which opens today. The study, sponsored by the Medical Research Council, involved more than 1,000 people from five cities. Overall, people who had taken an NSAID were twice as likely to suffer bleeding from an ulcer in the stomach or duodenum than a patient in a control group.

Dr Colin-Jones urged GPs to consider prescribing alternative drugs for arthritic conditions. If NSAIDs were necessary, GPs should choose the lower risk drugs and use them at low dose, such as low-dose aspirin, he said.