By Margaret Rees
11 August 2017
New research points to a rising number of accidental opioid overdose deaths in Australia, echoing the opioid epidemic ravaging the United States, particularly among low-income and unemployed people.
The study, “Accidental drug-induced deaths due to opioids in Australia, 2013,” published by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), is based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data.
A key finding was that accidental opioid deaths are trending upward. There were 398 deaths in 2007, soaring to 639 deaths in 2012—a terrible 60 percent increase that points to a deepening social crisis.
Prescription painkillers (pharmaceutical opioids) are now primarily responsible for more overdose deaths than heroin. Prescription painkillers caused 70 percent of the 668 opioid overdose deaths in 2013, more than double the other 30 percent due to heroin overdoses.
The largest proportion of deaths—40 percent—occurred in the 35–44 year age group, followed by the 25–34 age group and the 45–54 group, both with 27 percent. These are adults in their prime years, not adolescents.
During 2013, there were 432 male victims aged 15 to 54, about two-and-a-half times the 165 females in the same age group, suggesting that male workers are particularly being affected.
The trends are thought to have worsened since 2013. “We expect further increases once the deaths data for 2014 and 2015 are finalised,” report co-author Amanda Roxburgh told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“We’re seeing a real shift from illicit to pharmaceutical opioids implicated in these deaths, affecting a broader range of people who want to manage their pain. There’s good research showing there’s been a four-fold increase in the prescribing of these drugs between 1990 and 2014, particularly for Oxycontin, Tramadol and Fentanyl.”
Roxburgh suggested changes to medical prescription practices. She commented: “I think doctors need to prescribe for a shorter time and have the patient come in again for a review before they prescribe more.”
Once prescribed mainly for cancer patients, such opioids are now prescribed for acute pain after an operation and even chronic pain (lasting more than three months), such as lower back pain and osteoarthritis.
It is estimated that at least 20 percent of the population suffers chronic pain. This rising occurrence of pain, often work-related, has been the subject of aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical giants to persuade time-poor general practitioners to prescribe the powerful drugs.