Vol 15 Edition 3

Overdose deaths on the rise, benzos implicated: report

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2018 – a Penington Institute publication – is warning that benzodiazepines, including sleeping tablets and anxiety tablets, have now become a hidden epidemic in Australia and are causing an increasing number of overdoses each year.

In 2016, benzodiazepines contributed to the deaths of 650 Australians and this number has doubled in the past decade. Deaths involving benzodiazepines have jumped from 812 in the period 2002-2006 to 2,177 in the five years 2012-2016.

Grampians Community Health chief executive Greg Little is concerned about the increase in overdoses, particularly in regional areas.

“People often don’t understand or appreciate that the majority of deaths from drugs is not from illegal substances such as heroin or methamphetamine, but from prescribed drugs,” Greg says.

“The medication is prescribed for a purpose but the lack of understanding in the community about the risk of not following directions, seeing it as a long-term way of easing pain or anxiety is a real, life-threatening problem.

“Accidental overdose is an example of this. It is also a huge risk when people use multiple substances such as mixing depressants and stimulants.”

Penington Institute CEO John Ryan says that accidental death due to drug use is dramatically increasing in Australia.

“Overdose is a very big issue for the community. This is why campaigns such as International Overdose Awareness Day are so important,” John says

“This year we saw 747 IOAD events registered on our overdoseday.com website. We conservatively estimate that there were at least another 100 events held at a grassroots level by not registered with us.”

Highlights of the day include the lighting up purple of the CN Tower in Toronto, a campaign across 2,500 Boots Pharmacy shops in the UK and first-time events in 19 countries including Mexico, Cote d’lvoire, Romania, Tanzania and Togo.

IOAD activities in Côte d’Ivoire (credit: Adeolu Ogunrombi), Africa

The key findings of Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2018 include:

  • Pharmaceutical opioids continue to dominate overdose deaths; however, heroin deaths are on the rise again.
  • Most overdose deaths occur in middle-aged Australians (approximately 70 per cent of all overdose deaths occur among 30-59 year olds). What’s more from 2002 to 2016 the annual number of deaths in the 30-59 age bracket has risen from below 600 to just below 1200.
  • Deaths involving amphetamines have grown considerably in the last five years and amphetamines have overtaken alcohol as the third most likely drug to be implicated in a death (behind opioids and benzodiazepines).
  • While men make up two-thirds of accidental drug-related deaths, deaths among women are growing at a significantly faster rate than men.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are dying from overdose at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.
  • The rate of overdose deaths in rural and regional Australia has grown significantly compared to metropolitan Australia.
  • In 2016, nearly 68,000 potential years of life were lost in Australia to accidental drug-related death. This equates to an average of 33 years of life lost for every person who dies from a accidental overdose.

Key takeaways for NSP workers from the report:

  • If your client is also taking benzos, remind them of the risk of overdose from using different drugs at the same time especially stimulants (e.g. crystal methamphetamine) plus depressants.
  • Encourage people who inject heroin, use methadone/Suboxone® and/or use pharmaceutical opioids to learn how to use naloxone. They should then get some naloxone either via prescription from a doctor or from a pharmacy.
  • Learn how to use naloxone yourself and get some naloxone. (It’s important to note that naloxone will not reverse the effects of benzos, but in the case of using multiple substances reversing the effects of the opioids may be enough to allow time for ambulance paramedics to arrive.)

To request a copy of Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2018 visit: www.penington.org.au/australias-annual-overdose-report-2018

– Sophie Marcard

IOAD activities in Winnipeg, Canada
IOAD activities in Porto, Portugal (credit: leonorclemos)
IOAD activities in Hong Kong (credit: Kaz Basnet)