The rate of accidental deaths due to opioids is increasing and has more than doubled among Australians aged 35 to 44 since 2007 with more than two-thirds of the deaths due to pharmaceutical opioids rather than heroin, a report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has found.
The report analyses cause of death data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and found that in 2013, the last year for which finalised data is available, just under 600 (597) Australians between the ages of 15 and 54 died from accidental overdose of opioids with the majority 70 per cent being due to opioids other than heroin, including strong prescription painkillers. Initial estimates for 2014 and 2015 indicate that the number of accidental opioid deaths is continuing to increase.
In a reversal of the heroin epidemic of the late 90s and early 2000s, when heroin deaths peaked at over one thousand, the 2013 figures show that accidental death related to opioid overdose is more likely to affect older Australians– those aged 35 to 44 and those aged 45 to 54. Deaths among 45 to 54-year-olds are now higher than at the peak of the heroin epidemic in 2001. By contrast deaths among 15 to 24 years olds remain low and deaths among 25 to 34-year-olds have declined since 2011.
There were a total of 597 accidental opioid overdose deaths in 2013 (564 in 2012) among those aged 15 to 54 years, and 668 deaths across all ages (639 in 2012).
In 2013, the rate of accidental overdose deaths due to opioids in Australia was 46.7 per million persons aged 15 to 54 years, compared to 44.7 per million persons in 2012. Among all ages the rate of accidental opioid deaths in 2013 was 28.9 per million persons (28.1 in 2012).
In 2013, 189 (32%) of the 597 accidental opioid deaths among Australians aged 15 to 54 were due to heroin (30% in 2012 were due to heroin) (Table 1). Among all ages, 198 (30%) of the 668 deaths were due to heroin (data not shown).
In 2013, 408 (68%) of the 597 accidental opioid deaths among Australians aged 15 to 54 were due to pharmaceutical opioids (70% in 2012 were due to pharmaceutical opioids) (Table 1). Among all ages, 470 (70%) of the 668 deaths were due to pharmaceutical opioids (data not shown).
In 2013 among Australians aged 15 to 54, approximately one-third (32%) of the accidental opioid deaths occurred in New South Wales (NSW) (n=190), 28% in Victoria (VIC) (n=166) and 19% in Queensland (QLD) (n=114). NSW and VIC recorded an increase in accidental opioid deaths in 2013, with QLD, SA and WA recording a decline (Table 2). In the smaller jurisdictions (Tasmania (TAS), the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), deaths are small in number.
Projected estimates for 2014 (n=684) and 2015 (n=689) suggest that accidental opioid deaths are trending upwards among those aged 15 to 54 years. These figures should be interpreted with caution as they are estimates and may change.