NZ’s Prescription Opioid Use Soars

July 9, 2017

Kiwis are taking prescription opioid painkillers in record quantities, risking dangerous addictions.

Since 2011, the number of prescriptions for pain medication increased from 6.15 million to 7.18 million in 2016, Pharmac figures obtained under the Official Information Act show.

During the same period, the number of scripts for opioid painkillers rocketed by almost 20 per cent, from 1.56 million to 1.85 million.

The ease of access and use of prescription opioids has caused alarm overseas, with health officials in the United States warning of an opioid epidemic.

Denise Stephen saw the devastating effects of opioid abuse first-hand. In 2008, her 19-year-old daughter Freya died after becoming addicted to Oxycodone. It was an addiction that she battled in secret.

“She just turned into a train wreck,” Stephen said. “It put her onto a path that ended up in her death. I had no idea that my clever, beautiful, brilliant girl was a drug seeker.”

In the years following Freya’s death, Stephen had seen a renewed effort across the board to be careful with opioids like Oxycodone. Given this, she was surprised to hear that they were being prescribed in such high numbers.

Freya started taking the opioid oxycodone in her last year of high school after fracturing her spine. She took it to deal with excruciating pain while waiting for surgery.

After an operation that involved inserting a rod into her back, Freya kept taking it and started obtaining it on the black market.

Stephen said she was shocked by the increase in opioid prescriptions.

“By what I’ve seen, GPs have been taking a very measured approach, so to hear that [opioids are] being prescribed like this, it’s horrifying.”

A US survey in 2014 reported almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids.

Sue Paton, executive director of Addiction Practitioners’ Association Aotearoa New Zealand, said about 5300 people were currently receiving opioid substitution therapy.

The vast majority of those undergoing treatment had developed an addiction after taking prescription opioids, as illicit opioids, such as heroin, are relatively rare in New Zealand.

However, the treatment figure does not reflect the scale of the problem in New Zealand, Paton said.

“International data says that in a country similar to New Zealand, about one per cent of the population will be addicted to opioids. Our data doesn’t reflect that, so I think there’s been a gross underestimation of our addiction problem.”

New Zealand risks experiencing an opioid epidemic similar to the US’s if greater resources and focus aren’t given to the use of painkillers, she said.

A better understanding was needed about who is becoming addicted, their drug of choice, and how they access opioids.

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