It’s the kind of drug addiction that starts out in the open, right in the face of the people you love most. You can justify it at first, it’s legal after all. You purchase it at the pharmacy and it’s been prescribed to you by a doctor. You’re not meeting dealers in dark alleys.
But, before too long, you require a higher dosage to achieve the same effect and you realise (or keep denying) that you’ve become addicted to the medication that was originally prescribed to help you.
This is happening across the globe with opioids – a class of drugs that span the legal and the illegal. Pain killers are a derivative of opioids, so is heroin. Both forms of the drug act on opioid receptors in the brain and can result in the same feeling of euphoric anaesthesia. Both drugs are highly, highly addictive.
For doctors, opioids are an easy fix. Perfect for alleviating acute pain in patients after an operation or an accident. And especially useful in treating those with chronic pain, a more difficult condition to pin down and cure.
But over-prescription of opioids has lead to an ‘epidemic’ of addiction in the U.S. An epidemic that saw 52,404 deaths from overdoses in 2015, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the number of deaths involving any form of opioid quadruple since 1999.
In Australia, the same thing is happening. The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) released a report last week showing how the rate of accidental deaths due to opioids has more than doubled among Australians aged 35-44 in the last 10 years. More than two thirds of these accidental deaths are due to prescription opioids.
Read that again: More than two-thirds of accidental opioid deaths in Australia are from drugs prescribed by a doctor and purchased at a pharmacy.
“Opioid dependency can happen to anyone and they don’t necessarily have to be injecting the medication to have a problem. It could be your brother, sister, mother, father, lawyer, gardener or your best friend, no one is immune,” Pene Wood, who is acommunity pharmacist, Lecturer in Clinical Pharmacy at LaTrobe University and an Opioid Management Clinical Advisor for the Western Victoria Primary Health Network told Mamamia.
“With ongoing use, especially at high doses, tolerance can develop and people may need to take more of the medication to have the same effects. Trying to stop can lead to distressing withdrawal symptoms so these patients keep taking the medication.”
And taking the medication. And taking the medication.
In the U.S. there were enough opioids prescribed by doctors in 2015 to medicate every American around the clock for three weeks, according to research out of the CDC, as reported by Vox.
Australia is not there yet, but steadily on the way. Approximately 20,000 doses of opioids are prescribed for every one million people in Australia (compared to 50,000 per one million people in the U.S.), as listed in a recent paper published in the medical journal Lancet. And, in 2014, “more than 13 million prescriptions for opioids were written across the country”, Wood told Mamamia.