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independent.ie, Ireland
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Larissa Nolan

Tranquilliser usage amongst Ireland's medical card holders is continuing to rise, with prescriptions for the addictive anti-anxiety drugs now approaching one million a year.

Latest figures from the Health Service Executive (HSE) show that a total of 963,152 scripts for the three leading tranquillisers were issued to GMS patients in 2006, up 63,918 from 2004. They also rose by 60,000 between 2002 and 2004.

The statistics come from the GMS Payments Board, which tracks the top 100 most commonly prescribed drugs.

Diazepam (brand name Valium) was in the top 20 of the Payments Board's list, with Temazepam (Restoril) at number 29 in the table, and Alprazolam (Xanax) at number 54.

The steady increase in these benzodiazepines is continuing despite the Government's campaign to tackle levels of prescriptions after a Department of Health study showed that one in ten GMS patients were on the drug.

Benzodiazepines are extremely effective in treating anxiety disorders, but they are highly addictive and withdrawal is difficult.

In 2002, the then Minister for Health Micheal Martin advised GPs to look for alternative solutions before hastily writing a script.

"I am confident that this (campaign) will lead to a reduction," he said, However, mental health experts say the reason for the rise is a lack of counselling services for medical card holders.

Dr Andree Rochfort, of the Irish College of General Practitioners, said that such facilities were virtually non-existent for GMS patients and, with no alternative available, doctors sometimes have no option than to prescribe them.

A 2004 report into benzodiazepines showed that Ireland has the highest rate of usage in Europe.

The report was carried out by the international anti-benzodiazepine campaigner Barry Haslam and presented to the EU in Brussels.

The HSE is currently running an television advertising campaign to ensure people take care of their mental health.

The television ad states: "Look after yourself, look after your mental health."

The most commonly prescribed product overall in the GMS Top 100 was painkiller Aspirin, which is used to prevent heart attacks and blood clots.

More than two million prescriptions for aspirin were issued in 2005.

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