01.12.2018 Health News

Australia gripped by opioid use

The opioid epidemic sweeping the US has now reached Australia according to recent research.

A Monash University study published in late November has found a staggering 1.9 million Australian adults begin taking prescription opioids each year. The figure was based on dispensing of opioids through Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from 2013 to 2017.

The findings back up another recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) revealing that deaths involving opioids have nearly doubled in the last 10 years in Australia.

Overdose from prescription medicines has already overtaken road deaths and illicit drug overdose as a cause of death in Australia.

The paper comes at a time when the use of prescription opioids in the USA is routinely described as a “public health crisis” and an “epidemic”, with more than 130 people dying every day from opioid related drug overdoses in 2016 and 2017.

The Monash study has found 50,000 people become long-term opioid users over a year.

Researcher Samanta Lalic said the prescribing of stronger opioids was a particular concern because both long-term use and the use of strong opioids are associated with a range of adverse health outcomes.

In addition to overdose deaths, high-dose opioid use has been associated with falls, fractures, hospitalisations and motor vehicle accidents.

“Opioids do have an important role in managing cancer pain and acute non-cancer pain. However, their use remains less well established for chronic, that is long-term, non-cancer pain,” Ms Lalic said.

“For the treatment of chronic pain, we need to change prescribing culture and raise the level of awareness of other treatment options among patients.

“In many cases the safest and most effective way to treat chronic pain will involve a combination of therapies, including exercise, physiotherapy and non-opioid painkillers.”

The next step in research will seek to determine how prescribers and patients escalate doses over time.

“This is important because international research has demonstrated a strong link between prescribed dose and overdose deaths,” Ms Lalic said.

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