The number of people dependent on prescription opiates, such as morphine and oxycodone, is increasing, while more people are dying from addiction to prescription drugs, according to Shepparton Primary Care Connect doctor Paul MacCartney.
While overdose is largely associated with illicit drug use, Dr MacCartney said many Australians found themselves in the grip of an unprecedented crisis in the form of prescribed medication.
‘‘A significant issue for Shepparton is that it has one of the highest instances of prescribing prescription opiate medication, but it also has one of the highest instances of overdose,’’ Dr MacCartney said.
‘‘The number of people who are dying is increasing dramatically and there needs to be some kind of response to this.’’
According to Primary Care Connect, there have been various estimates of prescription opioid dependence, which included about 150000 of all adult chronic pain patients taking opioid medication.
On a per capita basis, the agency estimated up to 5000 Greater Shepparton residents could be addicted, with that figure rising to 10000 for the Moira, Shepparton, Strathbogie, Mitchell and Murrindindi areas combined.
Despite the high number, Dr MacCartney said many of the region’s doctors and pharmacies had refused to prescribe and dispense the counter-opioid drug nalaxone, and the small number willing to was not enough to meet the need.
The drug is non-addictive and counters the effects of opioid overdose caused by heroin, morphine and prescribed opioid medications and is considered a safe drug across a wide dose range.
Individuals on opioid prescribed medication, long-term opioid therapy and others at risk of overdose may benefit from having a nalaxone prescription to use in the event of an overdose.
While previously it was used only by emergency workers, it can now be legally prescribed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and is available over the counter at pharmacies as a schedule 3 medication.
‘‘Doctors are resistant to providing the medication, which is safe and effective and should be standard,’’ Dr MacCartney said.
‘‘The pharmacies of Shepparton, while happy to dispense the prescription opiates to facilitate people’s dependency, refuse to prescribe that cure to the same patients.
‘‘There is no addiction with it, there’s no side effects and our clients have been going to the doctors and asking for help.’’
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Australia and New Zealand have higher than average drug mortality rates, with between 1700 and 2100 drug-related deaths in 2013.
Dr MacCartney said the impacts of opioid addiction was an issue which stemmed further than the illicit drug culture and those taking pain medication, particularly the elderly or those suffering from chronic pain, were at risk of becoming dependent.
‘‘We want to start a discussion about prescribed drugs and around how to prescribe appropriately, because we know it’s killing people,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s not just impacting those addicted to drugs, this is normal people taking pain medication and they’re the ones who end up dying.’’