Heroin deaths spike, pharmaceutical opioid deaths creep downwards

Doug Hendrie

26/09/2019 3:41:29 PM

The 438 deaths caused by heroin in 2018 represent Australia’s highest number in almost 20 years, a new report has found.

Discarded needle
Heroin and other opioids are taking a major toll.

But deaths from pharmaceutical opioids are heading marginally downwards, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on opioid-induced deaths.
The overall opioid-induced death rate fell marginally, from 4.8 per 100,000 people in 2018 to 4.6 in 2017, due to a decrease in deaths linked to natural and semi-synthetic opioids.
Overall, opioids were linked to two thirds of all drug-induced deaths last year – 1123 of 1740 overall deaths.
Drug policy organisation Penington Institute CEO John Ryan said the report shows that Australia’s opioid picture is becoming more complex, but remains ‘very grim’.
‘It’s quite possible that patients are being more careful around pharmaceutical opioids and that some of the changes in prescribing practice are having an impact,’ he told newsGP.
‘But it could be that the unintended consequence is a shift to heroin consumption.
‘It’s a bleak picture and I don’t think there’s nearly enough action to get the number down. These deaths are still far in excess of the road toll.
‘We’ve got an opportunity to be doing a lot more.’
Mr Ryan said GP involvement in opioid-substitution therapy is vital as a stabilising influence in people’s lives.
ABS Director of Health and Vital Statistics James Eynstone-Hinkins said there were more than three deaths a day last year in which opioids were involved.
‘Of these deaths, the most common were accidental overdoses among middle-aged males,’ he said
The Penington Institute released its own report on overdose deaths in Australia last month. It found the number of Australians dying from unintentional overdoses increased by almost 38% over a decade.
‘The continued growth in unintentional overdose deaths is linked to highly potent drugs, many of which are available through prescription, such as pharmaceutical opioids and benzodiazepines,’ the report states.
‘Illegal drugs such as heroin and stimulants including crystal methamphetamine (‘ice’) also contribute to a significant number of fatalities.’
Efforts to address the opioid overdose crisis range from Victoria’s SafeScript prescription monitoring system, to moves by hospitals to introduce post-surgery opioid weaning plans, to the Department of Health’s controversial warning letters to GPs deemed to be prescribing at high rates.
The report comes after Monash University researchers found a surge in the numbers of people attending emergency departments in Victoria due to illness caused by pharmaceutical opioids, with rates rising 3.1% annually.

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