MARK COLVIN: A new study shows that more than 800 Australians died from use of the prescription painkiller Oxycodone over a decade.
It’s best known by names like Endone and Oxycontin.
The study calls on doctors to exercise more caution when prescribing the drug.
Alison Caldwell reports.
ALISON CALDWELL: After actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment in 2008, a post mortem revealed six different types of prescription drugs in his blood.
One of them was Oxycodone, one of the most abused prescription drugs in the world today.
From 2001 until 2011, the number of Australian prescriptions for Oxycodone soared by 560 per cent. Over the same period it contributed to the deaths of more than 800 Australians.
The grim statistics are contained in new research by Monash University and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.
But it comes as no surprise to Dr Alex Wodak, the former director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney from 1982 until 2012.
ALEX WODAK: Well it’s a very serious problem here in Australia, it’s a big public health issue that hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. It’s an even bigger problem in the United States and it’s a comparable problem in Canada and in the UK as well.
ALISON CALDWELL: Why do you think it’s not receiving the attention it should here in Australia?
ALEX WODAK: Well overall it’s very hard to approach this subject in a calm and rational and sensible way when the whole area is so demonised and politicised, it’s hard for people to see it rationally.
ALISON CALDWELL: Based on a study of data from the National Coronial Information System, the researchers found 60 per cent of the people who died after using Oxycodone were men, mostly aged between 35 and 44 years. More than half died accidentally.
Three-hundred-and-twelve cases, or 40 per cent, involved a legitimate prescription for Oxycodone.
Dr Wodak again.
ALEX WODAK: The difficulty is that it’s hard to shift prescribing to become more appropriate without damaging some people who really do need the drugs and benefit from them.
ALISON CALDWELL: One suggestion is that perhaps they should raise the threshold for this prescription drug to be available to severe pain from moderate pain.
ALEX WODAK: Well I think overall doctors do need to be more discriminating, they need to be more selective about which patients to prescribe these drugs to and they should have higher thresholds, they should prescribe them in lower doses and for shorter periods.
But it’s a balancing act. Opioids are terrific for sudden pain, tooth pain and for cancer pain, we should continue to use them widely, but for chronic non-cancer pain, benefits are very modest and a lot of harm is also created.
ALISON CALDWELL: He says there’s a very clear link between access to methadone and demand for Oxycodone.
ALEX WODAK: Methadone treatment is undersupplied and is very expensive for the very low income group, the very vulnerable group, and everybody benefits; the individuals, their families, the communities, if drug users who want to have treatment with methadone end up getting good treatments with those drugs.
ALISON CALDWELL: And if they can’t get them, they go for the Oxycodone?
ALEX WODAK: Yes of course they do, it’s much cheaper and much less rigid.
MARK COLVIN: Alison Caldwell.
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Oxycodone to blame for more than 800 deaths – ABC Online