Drug overdoses on rise in rural areas

Alan Fisher is concerned about the prevalence of drug overdoses in regional areas. Picture: DAVID THORPE

Alan Fisher is concerned about the prevalence of drug overdoses in regional areas. Picture: DAVID THORPE

The Border needs more pain and addiction specialists to tackle regional Australia’s rising death rate resulting from accidental drug overdoses.

Figures released this week by Melbourne’s Penington Institute showed accidental overdose death rates in 2012 were higher in regional and rural areas than in capital cities.

The rate of accidental drug deaths (per 100,000 people) outside capital cities has risen 127 per cent in the past decade, while in NSW, outside of Sydney, the death rate has doubled since 2008, from 2.25 to 4.72 per 100,000 people.

In regional Victoria the death rate is 3.19 per 100,000 people.

Penington Institute chief executive John Ryan said the rise was almost certainly due to an increase in the misuse of prescription drugs including oxycodone and fentanyl.

He said the data contradicted the commonly held view that drug overdose was a bigger problem in “the big smoke” rather than in regional centres.

“There hasn’t been a shift in heroin use in regional areas that could account for this. Overdose deaths involving these types of drugs are increasing as community use levels go up,” he said.

Clinical leader of mental health, drug and alcohol services with Albury Wodonga Health Alan Fisher said there was a common misconception that drug overdoses were not prevalent in regional areas.

“When people think of drug overdoses they think of heroin and that’s not a regional issue; ours is more with prescription drugs like opioids which are supposed to be used for pain,” Mr Fisher said.

“Around 2010 we saw a disturbing increase in the number of fatal overdoses of prescription drugs.”

Mr Fisher said because the rate of drug overdose in the North East was related to prescription drugs, there was a need for further education among the region’s medical professionals.

“Due to the lack of pain specialists, GPs are left handling complicated cases and complicated people, so we want to make resources available to educate them on how to handle those situations.”

“Unfortunately most of the drugs are coming from scripts; not from pharmacy robberies or illegal drugs and they are being sold by people who just look like an everyday person, not a drug dealer.”

Mr Ryan said the most noticeable increase in accidental overdose death rates had been in regional NSW.

“The overall capital city accidental overdose death rate has fallen in capital cities snce 2010. However, in regional and rural areas, there is a steady rise,” he said.

“Without singling out any particular drug, it does overlap with the increase in fentanyl overdoses in regional and rural NSW.

Duty operations manager at Ambulance NSW Lawrie Evans has had first-hand experience of the effects of drug overdoses in Albury.

“Our recent deaths have mainly been with prescription drugs and the problem arises when people abuse these drugs and take them in ways they weren’t supposed to be taken,” he said.