Opioids are driving drug overdose deaths, but people with addiction are struggling to access treatment

Opioids are driving drug overdose deaths, but people with addiction are struggling to access treatment

Leah McLeod’s life was spiralling out of control.

She was working four jobs, was three months behind in rent, and she was pregnant.

She was also addicted to heroin.

Then her doctor gave her some frank advice that changed the course of her life.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t go on methadone today, the chances of you leaving the hospital with your baby is slim’,” Ms McLeod said.

That was 20 years ago. She followed his advice and has been taking the prescription medication ever since.

Methadone, and other similar opioid replacement therapies (ORT), have been used for decades in countries including Australia, and are designed to reduce craving and withdrawals associated with opioid dependence.

“Sometimes I say it was my child that saved my life. But maybe it was methadone. That first morning that you wake up and you’re not sick is magic,” Ms McLeod said.

Now, frontline health workers have warned many Australians who live with opioid addiction are struggling to access support and the ORTs that could save their lives.

People waiting years for a prescription

Ms McLeod is worried about the length of time it takes some people just to find a prescriber who can get them onto those therapies.

Opioids are driving drug overdose deaths, but people with addiction are struggling to access treatment
Leah McLeod is now the vice chairperson of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League and advocates for improving access to ORT.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

It is also a concern for doctors, who are especially worried for people in regional areas who have to wait years, or cannot access ORT locally at all.

That is according to addiction medicine specialist Hester Wilson, the chairperson of the Special Interest Group in Addiction with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

She said many of the GPs who have been prescribing the medications for decades are now retiring, and not enough new doctors are registering to prescribe the therapies because it is expensive and time consuming.

“It’s an extraordinary situation, that for us in a first-world country with such good access to health care, that people can’t access this treatment, which is evidence based. We know it improves people’s outcomes,” Dr Wilson said.

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