By JENNY HOPE
The first study of its kind in Britain shows a near doubling in the rate of prescribing of powerful tranquilisers such as Risperdal and Zyprexa, originally designed to treat psychosis and schizophrenia in adults.
Alarming rise: 2,917 children were prescribed anti-psychotic drugs in 2005
Research by academics at the University of London’s Pharmacy School found 595 children in Britain were prescribed anti-psychotics at a rate of less than four per 10,000 children in 1992.
But by 2005, that figure had risen to 2,917 children at a rate of seven per 10,000, according to the study’s lead researcher Fariz Rani.
Most of those drugs prescribed were not officially approved for children, with many being given to calm children with autism and behavioural problems such as hyperactivity.
However, side effects including weight gain and heart trouble have been reported in autistic or hyperactive children treated with anti-psychotic drugs and there is little long-term evidence that the drugs are safe.
Writing in the medical journal Paediatrics, the researchers say: “This highlights the need for long-term safety investigations and ongoing clinical monitoring, particularly if the prescribing rate of these medicines continues to rise.”
One of the most commonly used anti-psychotics in the UK is Risperdal, a schizophrenia drug that is sometimes used to treat irritability and aggression in autism.
Its side effects include drowsiness and weight gain.
The new study, based on the health records of more than 16,000 children, is the first large examination of the use of these drugs in British children.
The figures still put the UK well behind the U.S. in the numbers of children being treated with the drugs.
An earlier U.S. study found nearly 45 American children out of 10,000 used the drugs in 2001 up from more than 23 per 10,000 in 1996.
There has been conflicting evidence about the scale of use of anti-psychotics by children, with a BBC Panorama investigation claiming up to 8,000 youngsters were taking them.
Dr Tim Kendall of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, speaking on the programme, said he knew of children as young as 10 being given the schizophrenia drugs for unruly behaviour, sometimes for as long as five years.
He said the drugs should be considered as a last resort in the treatment of hyperactivity.
“A generous understanding would be to say that doctors have reached a point where they don’t know what else to offer and they haven’t got the right supports to help parents in difficult circumstances.
“I think perhaps there is no real excuse for prescribig drugs which are associated with such severe side effects,” he added.