Fentanyl is causing an overdose epidemic in the United States and Canada. Picture: Supplied
Fentanyl is causing an overdose epidemic in the United States and Canada. Picture: Supplied

Silent killer creeping into Australia

FENTANYL is a silent killer creeping into regional Australia.

ABC reporter Lucy Barbour recently sat with a young woman while she prepared a shot of the high-strength opioid behind closed doors in a country town.

"Some people wake up and have breakfast. I wake up and have a shot," the woman said.

"That's my breakfast."

The drug is commonly prescribed to people with cancer and chronic pain, and it's legally sold in Australia in slow-release patches that cost a few dollars each.

However, the black market is thriving.

In April, the Australian Border Force (ABF) deployed officers to cyberspace to combat increased trade in synthetic drugs like Fentanyl on the Dark Web, where a single patch can be resold for up to $100.

The move followed a dire warning from their American counterparts that Australia could be heading for an overdose epidemic.

"Fentanyl has caused a large number of deaths across North America over a number of years and we fear it could result in a similar toll here as a result of its potency," ABF boss Roman Quaedvlieg told News Corp at the time.

Iain Cartney, a pharmacist from Bairnsdale in eastern Victoria, said he knows of at least eight deaths caused by Fentanyl sold in his pharmacy this year.

"We have a father who is actually going without his medication because his son is taking them and onselling them," he told the ABC.

"It worries me to death."

Australia's Annual Overdose Report 2017, released last week, shows opioid-related overdoses have almost doubled in the 10 years from 2005 to 2015.

Shockingly, more Australians are now dying from overdoses than car accidents.

More than 20 per cent of them were from Fentanyl, or similar synthetic drugs.

Queensland was hardest hit, with a "nineteen-fold" increase in Fentanyl-related deaths, while deaths increased eight times across the country.

The trouble with Fentanyl is its extreme potency.

It's said to be 50 times stronger than heroin, and 1000 times more potent than morphine, and is commonly referred to as a "zombie drug".

The drug began production in the 1960s as a cheap painkiller, because its synthetic nature means it's not reliant on opium poppy crops and can be mass produced.

Even the tiniest amount can be fatal.

For example, in 2015 a healthy 21-year-old called Michael Clayton died in his sleep after applying a Fentanyl patch to some sore muscles.

The personal trainer thought it was just a standard painkiller.

It also caused a scandal in the Victorian ambulance service in 2014, after it was found to be disappearing from medical kits.

The investigation followed the deaths of two paramedics who used the drug.

"We need better community education for people who are experimenting with drug use before they become addicted," said John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute, a not-for-profit which aims to raise awareness of problematic drug use.

"Governments can't solve this problem on their own - responsibility needs to be shared between the community and government."

Fentanyl overdoses are claiming thousands of lives across America and Canada.

The scale is so severe authorities have dubbed it a "mass casualty event" on par with a natural disaster, and in some regions - such as Ohio - coroners are looking at renting additional morgue spaces in funeral homes to handle the influx of bodies.

Just last month, America's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis urged President Donald Trump to declare a "state of emergency".

Experts warn Australia is heading the same way.

"Australia is one of a group of countries that is rapidly moving towards the same dangerous territory," said Stanford University Professor Keith Humphreys.

In an opinion piece published in medical journal Lancet, he said Australia ranks eighth among the world's top 30 users of prescription opiates, with about 20,000 doses prescribed to every one million people.

America's opioid problems began in doctors offices and hospitals, and is fuelled by ongoing dependence on pharmaceuticals.

Australia must act now to avoid a similar fate.

News Corp Australia

-0.4C! Southeast shivers through coldest morning of year

Premium Content -0.4C! Southeast shivers through coldest morning of year

In one town it felt like it was 0 degrees after wintery blast

Two men hospitalised following single-vehicle rollover

Premium Content Two men hospitalised following single-vehicle rollover

Two men was transported to Charleville Hospital following a single-vehicle crash in...

Jab now a sore point for a PM under fire

Premium Content Jab now a sore point for a PM under fire

The Prime Minister has been forced to defend the slow vax rollout