Unintentional overdose numbers climb

The number of Australians who die from unintentional drug overdose each year continues to rise, and is set to worsen due to COVID-19, a new report reveals.

Released on International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31), the Penington Institute’s Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2020, has found deaths due to all classes of drugs had risen from 2014 to 2018, the latest available calendar year. 

Over that time, unintentional deaths due to opioid use rose by 9%, deaths due to benzodiazepines increased by 34% and those due to stimulant use rose by 77 per cent.

In total, 10,834 Australians lost their lives due to overdose in the five years period from 2014 to 2018.

The report revealed there were 2070 drug-induced deaths in Australia in 2018, of which 1556 were unintentional.

The breakdown of drugs involved in the 1556 unintentional overdoses:

  • 900 opioids
  • 684 Benzodiazepines
  • 442 stimulants
  • 382 Anti-depressants
  • 328 Cannabinoids
  • 223 Anti-psychotics
  • 128 Anti-convulsants

The report found that poly-drug use, where four or more substances were detected, was implicated in 123% more deaths over the most recent four years – increasing from 261 in 2014 to 582 in 2018.

“Deaths involving multiple drugs are the norm rather than the exception. For example, the data show that poly-drug deaths involving four or more substances have increased significantly in recent years,” the report revealed.

John Ryan, CEO of the Pennington Institute said that “for the fifth year running, more than 2,000 Australians lost their lives to overdose in a single calendar year”.

“It is a grim landmark – and a brutal indictment of our governments’ narrow focus on controlling the supply of substances while failing to care enough for those who are already consuming, and at risk of multiple harms including fatal overdose,” he said.

In addition, he predicted the situation could worsen when the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were included in future reports.

“Evidence from overseas shows, COVID-19 is accelerating trends and exacerbating risk factors which are already detectable in this year’s Report,” he said.

“Vulnerable people risk losing the supports they rely on to stay connected and healthy. But these risk factors for overdose were present in Australia long before the pandemic”.

Opioids continued to be the primary drug group associated with unintentional drug-induced deaths, however in 2018, heroin overtook pharmaceutical opioids as a contributor to unintentional deaths. 

This had followed a “dramatic rise in deaths involving heroin since 2012”, the report revealed. 

Benzodiazepines remained the second most common group of drugs identified in unintentional drug-induced, though they were predominantly identified in poly-substance overdose deaths.

Since 2013 there has been a substantial increase in unintentional drug-induced deaths involving benzodiazepines in both Western Australia and Victoria, and to a lesser extent, New South Wales.

There had also been a sharp rise in deaths involving stimulants (including methamphetamine) since 2012, which is seen in both regional and urban areas.

In contrast, the increase in deaths involving antidepressants has been slower.

Deaths involving other prescription medications – such as anti-convulsant medications and anti-psychotics – increased markedly in the last few years, although they account for only a small proportion of all unintentional drug-induced deaths, the report found.

Commenting on the report, Kim Brotherson, Pharmacy 777 Managing Director said that pharmacists are “uniquely placed to help community members avoid harms associated with the use of high-risk medications such as prescription opioids”.

“Patients often think because medications are prescribed, they are safe to use however it’s often the combination of medications a person takes which can lead to serious problems, and can even be fatal. It is not uncommon for people to self-manage their medication, especially for pain and this can lead to dependence. It can happen to anyone,” he said.

“It’s important Pharmacists make patients feel comfortable to talk to them about their concerns.
We can support patients who feel they are uncertain about their medication use and help them to understand not only how to manage their medications to avoid safety risks but also how to ensure they are still working well for their intended therapy.” 

Go here for key findings from the report, or to obtain a copy


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1 Comment

  1. Vita

    If I was in severe pain and sent home with a box of paracetamol because of extra barriers to access better medication and support, I would take the whole box too.

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