According to the latest figures released by Ambulance Victoria overdoses of alcohol and the abuse of prescription drugs is rampant in Melbourne, with more than 14,000 crisis call-outs made to emergency services to combat the excessive use of drugs last year.
Figures show that alcohol is the city's drug of choice, with paramedics most often dispatched to assist intoxicated Melbournians. Reports of alcohol abuse in 2010-11 peaked with 6946 requests for assistance, up 12 per cent from 6187 in 2009-10.
The report comes as a part of Eastern Health's Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre’s efforts. The report showed while call-outs for illegal drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine had dropped, there was an alarming spike in the excessive use of legal drugs - particularly prescription medication. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, commonly prescribed for sleeping and anxiety issues, prompted 3135 emergency calls for assistance.
Turning Point researcher Belinda Lloyd said the risky use of prescription drugs demanded action. “While much attention is paid to illicit substances, we should also be mindful of the potential health problems that excessive consumption of prescription medication can cause,”' Dr Lloyd said. “'We need a suite of responses to address this … this is not just a health issue or a justice issue or a licensing issue, there is a whole range of factors involved,” she said. “In some ways, it's more complex than the illegal drug issue … you don't want to reduce the availability of these drugs for treating legitimate health conditions, but you also want to minimise the risk of them being diverted or used in an inappropriate way.”
Dr Lloyd said, “The need to have an ambulance involved represents that the event is a significant one.” “People wouldn't call an ambulance for a minor event. It also represents a significant cost to individuals but also to the community,” she added. Dr Lloyd said more community awareness is needed about the dangers of mixing alcohol and medication. “That can be a range of different harms right up to the risk of death,” she said.
The use of crystal methamphetamine (ice) has also jumped, with metropolitan paramedics responding to 282 calls for people on the drug in 2010-2011 compared to 136 the previous financial year. Ambulance Victoria CEO Greg Sassella said the figures were alarming, but should not deter people from calling the emergency services. “Any delay in calling an ambulance for any drug overdose can cost lives. Our role is to save lives, not make judgments,” he said.
Greg Sassella said paramedics are increasingly having to rely on police to help them treat people using ice. “In fact Melbourne is one of the first cites in the world to have paramedics provide sedation so that these people can actually be transported to hospital,” he said. “We work closely with police, who will, if you like, hold the patient while we will provide sedation to them with an injection so we can even care for them.”
A spokesman for the Victorian government said it was working with the Commonwealth to tackle prescription drug misuse while working to improve the state's drug and alcohol treatment system.