In Australia, Frustrations Rise As Opioid Crisis Takes Hold

By Kelly Burch 09/09/19

“We’re living in a country that is oblivious to what’s going on.”

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Australian man overdoses on opioids
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Jasmin Raggan watched as her brother developed addiction and died of an opioid overdose, and her brother-in-law became addicted to OxyContin.

Raggan, who lives in Australia, began researching opioids and the toll they were having in the United States, and realized that no one was talking about the real dangers headed Down Under. 

“If only Australia could understand how quickly this can get out of hand. We’re not immune to it,” Raggan told The Associated Press. “I was screaming from the mountaintops after Jon died and I’d started doing my research. And it was like I’m screaming and nobody wants to hear me.”

Lack of Awareness

In Australia, both opioid prescription rates and overdose rates have risen steeply in recent years, but the increase has been largely overlooked. Even Sydney pain specialist Dr. Jennifer Stevens, didn’t realize how bad it was until she tallied up data from her hospital and saw that prescriptions for one specific opioid had risen 500% in eight years. More alarmingly, 1 in 10 patients was still on opioids three months after a procedure, increasing their risk for dependence and addiction. 

“We were just pumping this stuff out into our local community, thinking that that had no consequences, and now, of course, we realize that it does have huge consequences,” Stevens said. 

Pharmaceutical Companies' Aggressive Marketing

Drug companies are in part to blame for the rise, pushing the same aggressive sales tactics that now have them in trouble in America. It’s illegal for pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers in Australia, but companies like Mundipharma, the international affiliate of Purdue, have skirted around the laws with “awareness campaigns” that don’t mention specific drugs by name, but still direct consumers to websites with information on the drugs. 

Stevens recalls Mundipharma marketing aggressively to doctors at her hospital. 

“Marketing, on the whole, is very clever and very successful — otherwise it wouldn’t be done,” she said. 

At the same time, the country lacks programs like prescription monitoring databases, which can help prevent overdoses and "doctor shopping."

In 2012, Australian Matthew Tonkin came home after serving in Afghanistan alongside American troops. He had been injured, and was also dealing with PTSD after witnessing the death of his best friend. He proudly showed his father David Tonkin the Americans’ solution: a strip of powerful opioid pills. 

Davis Tonkin recalls his son saying to him “Look, Dad, the Yanks really know how to look after you.”

At home, Matthew started doctor shopping for powerful opioids, until he died of an overdose in 2014. 

Not Learning from America's Mistakes

Sue Fisher, whose son died of an overdose in 2010, said it’s frustrating to see the lack of policies, especially since Australia can look to the US to see what solutions have worked to help stem overdose deaths — like prescription monitoring and Narcan programs.

“We’re living in a country that is oblivious to what’s going on,” Fisher said. “Why aren’t we learning from America’s mistakes? Why don’t we learn?”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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