A new report by University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has revealed that pharmaceutical opioids are major cause for associated overdose deaths.

The proportion of people dying due to opioid overdose was found to have significantly increased from 3.8 to 6.6 deaths per 100,000 Australians aged 15-64 years from 2007 to 2016.

Of the 1,045 opioid overdose deaths in Australia in 2016, 76% were attributed to pharmaceutical opioids.

Death rates were the highest for natural and semi-synthetic opioids with 3.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016, which represents 498 deaths.

The rate of deaths induced by heroin have also been increasing. In 2016, 2.2 deaths per 100,000 people were related to heroin. This has risen from 0.9 deaths in 2007.

According to the report, the rate of deaths by synthetic opioids increased from 0.11 per 100,000 in 2007 to 1.3 in 2016.

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“This situation of increasing deaths due to pharmaceutical opioids in Australia has generated a response in the policy space.”

In addition, it was found that benzodiazepine contributed to 45% of opioid-induced deaths in 2016, a surge from 35% in 2007.

The rate of opioid-induced deaths was observed to be higher in males, primarily among those aged 35-44 years, while it was low in the 15-24 age group.

Most of opioid-induced deaths were considered accidental; one-tenth of the total were deemed intentional.

UNSW Drug Trends programme lead Amy Peacock said: “This situation of increasing deaths due to pharmaceutical opioids in Australia has generated a response in the policy space.

“State and federal governments are considering a range of strategies, rolling out prescription monitoring programmes and other interventions intended to reduce risky opioid prescribing.”

Peacock added that increased availability of opioid substitution therapy for people with opioid dependence is an effective strategy to minimise overdoses.