PAIN PILLS TURN FATAL
OUR NEW HIDDEN EPIDEMIC
PRESCRIPTION opioid drug dependency in South Australia has reached “epidemic” proportions, killing the same number of people as illicit drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
The state’s peak medical body says the problem is escalating year on year and is now so harmful that it needs similar public safety awareness as SA’s horrific road toll.
Prescribed opioids, such as oxycodone and fentanyl, are used to treat moderate to severe pain, are highly addictive and can be fatal because they cause drowsiness and slow breathing.
The Australian Medical Association in SA says doctors in the northern and southern regions of Adelaide have reported a five-fold increase in patients requiring treatment for opioid dependence over the past decade.
“There is a massive, silent epidemic happening right now that, in some ways, is as severe and harmful to the community as domestic violence, gambling, road fatalities and illicit drugs – it just hasn’t had the same awareness,” AMA (SA) president Dr Chris Moy said.
He said that for every South Australian who recognised they had an opioid dependency problem, there were many more who did not and were in danger of serious sideeffects and increased risk of death.
“Those we know of are the tip of the iceberg and, because these patients have become physically and psychologically addicted to the euphoric feeling – the ‘hit’ – of opioids in the course of using these medications for pain management, they are playing games with their own lives.
“Something needs to be done immediately to address this hidden public health issue that is growing in magnitude.”
Latest data from the 2019 Pennington Institute Australia’s Annual Overdose Report shows 121 South Australians died from prescription opioids from 2013 to 2017 – the same number as those killed using illicit drugs over the same period.
The report says accidental pharmaceutical opioid deaths in SA jumped 63 per cent from
2003-07 to 2013-17. The number of South Australians treated for opioid dependency is also rising – to 3143 last year, up from 1839 a decade ago.
And the second-highest region in Australia for opioid dispensing is the Playford area, in the northern suburbs. the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report says.
Pain medicine specialists such as Dr Meredith Craigie said it could take a long time, sometimes years, for pharmaceutical opioid-dependent users to recognise they had a dependency problem, and even longer to implement a painmanagement strategy that helped them overcome their dependency and manage their pain.
“It becomes a vicious circle and people just don’t know how to get off,” said Dr Craigie, dean of pain medicine for the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists.
She said debilitating and life-changing side-effects from prolonged use of opioids included immune-system suppression, cognitive impairment – including memory loss and compromised decision-making – and depression.
Dr Craigie said doctors often struggled to convince patients they needed to reduce dangerous doses and that a multi-disciplinary approach involving pain specialists, nutritionists, psychologists and physiotherapists was needed.
“There is a growing moral imperative to treat chronic pain in a more humane way, but opioids alone are not the solution,” she said.
The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists and the AMA (SA) are among 16 organisations behind an SA-first community campaign run by ReturnToWorkSA to combat the growing impact of opioid misuse and overuse.
The campaign, called ReachForTheFacts, has developed a searchable database for South Australians to check whether their medications are opioids, a screening tool to help determine whether dependence is present, and resources for GPs and health professionals to help patients with pain management.
The State Government said a real-time notification system for doctors and pharmacists to address doctor-shopping would be rolled out in stages from next year to help reduce the rising toll of pharmaceutical drug misuse. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT REACHFORTHEFACTS.COM.AU. IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEEDS HELP, CALL LIFELINE 13 11 14 OR BEYOND BLUE 1300 224 636.