Overdose toll still worse than the road toll: report

Doug Hendrie

31/08/2020 4:29:32 PM

More than 2000 Australians died from drug overdoses in 2018, according to a report released on International Overdose Awareness Day.

map of australia
Overdose deaths in Australia are still increasing.

In 2018 – the last year for which data is available – 2070 people died from drug overdoses, with 1556 of these being unintentional, according to a report by harm minimisation advocacy organisation the Penington Institute.
The report focuses on unintentional deaths, which already far outstrip the road toll. Deaths from unintentional overdoses are increasing by 3% a year, while the road toll has fallen an average of 2.2% a year between 2001 and 2018. In 2018, 1220 people died on the roads.
Deaths linked to heroin continue to surge as worldwide availability of the illicit opioid rises, overtaking deaths linked to prescription opioids.
The report does not take into account any impact from COVID-19.  
But Penington Institute CEO John Ryan predicts COVID will have an impact based on overseas experience, with vulnerable people risking the loss of vital supports.
He said the persistently high deaths from overdoses is a ‘grim landmark’ and an indictment of government policies focused on control of drugs, rather than reducing harms.  
The report found:

  • Rural areas are seeing the highest growth in unintentional overdose deaths, rising by 15.9% from 2011–2018 in rural areas compared to 3.6% in capital cities  
  • Of the people who died, 40.6% were aged over 40
  • Deaths linked to polydrug (four or more) use have risen 123% in the four years to 2018, from 261 to 582 deaths
  • Deaths linked to stimulants such as methamphetamines are rising fast, up 77% in the same four years to 442 deaths
  • Opioids remain the number one drug group linked to overdoses, though deaths linked to heroin remain higher than those linked to pharmaceutical opioids
  • Benzodiazepines remain the second most common group of drugs linked to overdoses, though these are more likely to be found in polydrug overdoses
  • Men account for 71.5% of the deaths
  • The rate of unintentional deaths amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people far outstrips non-Indigenous, with 17.3 deaths compared to six per 100,000.
‘People turn to drugs for many reasons,’ Mr Ryan said.
‘Some are motivated by curiosity, pleasure or the promise of new experiences. For many others, drug use is a response to mental or physical traumas, such as workplace, sport or road accidents.
‘Mental health drivers are important, like anxiety and depression. Some people turn to drugs to distract them from despair or isolation, while some are people with little hope for their futures, including the financially insecure and those who have lost their jobs.’
Mr Ryan said technological fixes such as real-time prescription monitoring are not the silver bullet required to solve the problem, echoing the concerns of RACGP drug and alcohol expert Dr Hester Wilson.
The report calls for a comprehensive national overdose strategy as well as expansion of the Take Home Naxolone Pilot to all states and territories.
Expanding naxolone programs has been called for by both the Penington Institute, which emerged out of an organisation of needle exchange workers and people with experience with drug use, and the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL).
AIVL CEO Melanie Walker called for a stronger focus on evidence-based prevention and harm reduction measures to tackle overdoses.
‘The tragedy of overdose deaths is preventable,’ she said.
GP and addiction medicine specialist Dr Paul Grinzi has previously strongly backed naxolone expansion, describing the drug as like an EpiPen for overdose. 
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Dr Robert James Douglas   1/09/2020 11:57:16 AM

...and the elephant in the room is how many of these also have alcohol as a cofactor?