Mon, Sep 09, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Opioid crisis goes global as deaths surge in Australia

Canberra says it is now taking the problem seriously as calls go out to heed the warnings provided in the US

By Kristen Gelineau  /  AP, BLACK RIVER, Australia

“We were just pumping this stuff out into our local community, thinking that that had no consequences,” says Stevens, a vocal advocate for changing opioid prescribing practices. “And now, of course, we realize that it does have huge consequences.”

Just like in the US, as opioid prescriptions rose, so did fatal overdoses. Opioid-related deaths jumped from 439 in 2006 to 1,119 in 2016 — a rise of 2.2 to 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Most of those deaths were related to prescription opioids, rather than illegal opioids such as heroin.

More than 3 million Australians — an eighth of the country’s population — are getting at least one opioid prescription a year, according to the latest data.

The numbers and the warnings might have been glossed over partly because of Australia’s piecemeal system of data collection and reporting, says Christian Rowan, an addiction specialist in the state of Queensland. Data is reported by various states, coroners and agencies, and often includes only prescriptions filled through the government-subsidized drug system and not private prescriptions.

“Because it’s fragmented, people haven’t had a line of sight as to what’s happening,” Rowan says.

Australia’s government insists it is now taking the problem seriously. The opioid codeine, which used to be available over the counter, was restricted to prescription-only last year. Last month, the country’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, announced tougher opioid regulations, including restricting the use of fentanyl patches to patients with cancer, in palliative care, or under “exceptional circumstances.”

“I can’t speak for the past,” says Greg Hunt, who became the federal minister of health in 2017. “I can speak for my watch and my time where this has been one of my absolute priorities, which is why we’ve taken such strong steps... My focus has been to make sure that we don’t have an American-style crisis.”

However, for Sue Fisher, whose 21-year-old son Matthew died in 2010 of an overdose, it’s too little, too late. The crisis has arrived, along with what she calls a “crisis of ignorance.”

“We’re living in a country that is oblivious to what’s going on,” Fisher says. “Why aren’t we learning from America’s mistakes? Why don’t we learn?”

When Rustie Lassam thinks of the drug companies that pumped opioids into Australia’s market, she thinks of her infant son’s agonized wails as he went through withdrawal.

For years, doctors had told her that opioids would help her back pain, which led to an all-consuming addiction. During her pregnancy, she swallowed nine high-dose OxyContin tablets every day. So when she thinks about the way pharmaceutical companies have marketed those drugs to doctors, she weeps with rage and grief.

“If only they knew what addiction did to people, how really it affects us to the very core of who we are,” she says. “And there they are, making all this money off the back of my broken life.”

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