A ‘silent’ public health crisis is killing more people than the road toll each year

The number of Australians dying from drug overdoses has risen steadily since 2001 and experts say stigma and discrimination is to blame.

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report, published by not-for-profit drug and alcohol research centre the Penington Institute, found while there had been a sharp increase in the number of deaths related to stimulants, prescription pharmaceuticals were the leading cause of death.

There were 2,070 drug overdose deaths in 2018 — 1,556 of those were unintentional.

In the same timeframe, 1,220 people died on Australian roads.

Penington Institute deputy chief executive Dr Stephen McNally said while the number of drug-induced deaths surpassed the road toll in 2018, the issue fails to generate public attention.

“We need to be having conversations and raising this issue.

“It’s a tough issue, it’s clouded in stigma, discrimination, people don’t want to talk about it.”

Dr McNally said the public image associated with drug overdoses was that it was caused by illicit drug use, while the reality was that prescription drugs were the problem.

The report found opioids, like morphine or codeine, were the biggest cause of deaths, followed by benzodiazepines used for things like anxiety and insomnia, and anti-depressants.

Western Australia worst in the country

Regional Western Australia had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country in 2018, with 9.3 deaths for every 100,000 people.

Ben Headlam is the Great Southern regional manager for drug and alcohol service, the Palmerston Association, based in Albany on WA’s south coast.

He said the availability of services is a contributing factor for higher drug use.

“Rehab in the regions is very limited,” he said.

“The Great Southern is the one region in Australia without any residential rehab options.”

Multiple packets of colourful pharmaceutical medicines.
Prescription pharmaceutical drugs were the leading cause of overdose deaths in Australia.(Pixabay)

But Mr Headlam said he rarely sees clients who die from drug overdoses, because most of his clients are users of alcohol and illicit drugs, not prescription pharmaceuticals.

“People who are taking prescription medications are not necessarily engaged with this service,” he said.

“It’s not described as illicit substances, because it’s supplied by their doctor.”

Deaths outpace population growth

The report found that based on trends between 2001 and 2018, both drug-induced deaths and unintentional drug-induced deaths have been increasing on average by 3 per cent each year.

The number of drug induced deaths is outpacing population growth.

Between 2001 and 2018, Australia’s population increased by 29.9 per cent while the number of drug-induced deaths grew by 58.6 per cent.

Dr McNally says there’s a need for a national drug strategy.

But opioid dependence expert, Dr Gabrielle Campbell from the University of Sunshine Coast said the main problem was stigma in both doctors and patients.

She said there was a tendency to treat addiction to pharmaceutical drugs differently to illicit drugs, which should not be the case.

“We know that the really good things used for opioid therapy for heroin, could be used for people experiencing opioid dependence — methadone and buprenorphine,” she said.

“The problem with that is the stigma associated with it — the stigma associated with methadone and buprenorphine is that it’s used for people dependent on heroin.”

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