Accidental Opioid Overdose Rates Rise In Australia

By Paul Gaita 07/27/17

Much like the US, chronic pain management seems to be at the center of the spike in opioid overdoses in Australia.

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Prescription opioids now claim more lives in Australia than heroin, according to a new report issued by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

The study found that between 1990 and 2014, prescriptions for opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Tramadol and fentanyl quadrupled in Australia, due largely to an aggressive marketing campaign for such drugs to medical professionals and the public.

As a result, the number of Australians that succumbed to accidental opioid overdose doubled between 2007 and 2014—of the 597 opioid-related deaths in 2013, 30% died from heroin overdose, while the remainder died from other opioids like prescription painkillers.

As with the United States, chronic pain management appears to be at the center of the opioid explosion in Australia. One in three individuals there suffers from chronic pain, according to a study by Amcal Pharmacy, the country's leading online pharmacy—but more than a quarter of that number has no effective pain management plan, and 1 in 10 self-manage their pain without a doctor's input. 

The use of opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin—which were pushed as a cure-all by pharmaceutical companies to Australian general practitioners (GPs) in a manner similar to what happened in the United States—sent prescription rates for such drugs skyrocketing, accounting for two-thirds of total drug prescriptions in the country in 2014.

"For decades, physicians had recognized that opioids were highly addictive drugs, and that to prescribe them to any patients other than those who suffered from terminal cancer was illegal," wrote journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin in her book Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery.

"With Oxy, the tide had turned…for general practitioners, who found themselves with 'failed' back surgery patients entrusted to their care, OxyContin offered an answer to their prayers." The result: higher rates of treatment for dependency and hospitalizations for opioid-related issues, especially among older Australians (between the ages of 30 and 59).

Study lead author Amanda Roxburgh says prescription guidelines for opioids need to revert to pre-2007 levels, when they were expanded to include pain management scenarios other than cancer.

"We want continued, careful prescribing and shorter times to review so GPs can keep monitoring pretty closely whether people are developing problems with these medications," she noted. "We also need to look at other options for treating chronic pain that don't involve medication."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.