Drug overdose continues to be a significant cause of death in Australia

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

A new report has come up with alarming numbers of deaths due to drug overdose among Australians. The report states that common sedatives and sleeping pills may be responsible for over 142 deaths each month due to their overdose.

Australia’s Annual Overdose report 2018 comes from the Penington Institute which states that over the last decade up to 2016, there have been 13,471 deaths due to unintentional drug overdose and these numbers have doubled with time. The drug overdose deaths have even exceeded deaths on the road, states the report. The Penington Institute started in 2014, is a not-for-profit, Melbourne-based drug and alcohol organisation.

According to the researchers, the leading killer among drugs is legal pharmaceutical pain relievers. In most individuals a cocktail of substances are found in the blood stream when they overdose. Alcohol in combination with pain relievers and sleeping or anxiety relieving pills such as benzodiazepines is one of the most common combinations found in the cases of overdose deaths. Other combinations include alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin etc.

Penington Institute's chief executive John Ryan explained that drug overdose deaths are seen even among those who do not have a “drug problem”. He added that similar to opioid painkillers and alcohol, benzodiazepines such as diazepam and temazepam can depress the respiratory system. When combined, all three works to slow down breathing till the brain is deprived of enough oxygen. According to Ryan, that is the commonest reason behind the deaths due to overdoses.

The report goes on to add that the middle-aged Australians between ages 40 and 49 years are most likely to be affected. Those living in regional areas are also more at risk. At present men are more commonly dying of drug overdose but women are catching up rapidly finds the report. Wollongong was identified as the region where most cases of drug overdoses took place.

The report showed that between 2002 and 2006 there were 554 deaths due to heroin overdose. This number jumped to 1,183 between 2012 and 2016, the report states. Amphetamine deaths too have risen from 298 to 1,237, says the report. Opioids such as fentanyl, pethidine and tramadol, have killed 55 individuals in the earlier period and 746 in the more recent times.

According to Ryan, Australia was going the same path as United States where number of people dying of opioid overdose is huge. As a remedial measure he suggested more stringent control regarding access to drugs especially in the regional areas. He explained that in most regional areas, it may be difficult to find General Practitioners and pharmacists may be dispensing opioid substitution treatments. He said in a statement that at present not all families in Australia are affected with a drug overdose, but unless this trend is stopped, that might be a reality soon. He said, “As we approach International Overdose Awareness Day we encourage people to start having open and honest conversations about their drug use with their healthcare provider.”

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