NORTHERN Grampians Shire has the highest number of drug-related deaths in regional Victoria and the fourth highest number in the state.
Figures from the Coroners Court of Victoria show there were 176 deaths by drug overdose in Victoria in the first half of this year.
Northern Grampians Shire has had five deaths since the beginning of the year.
The figures also show that prescription drug misuse – 82 per cent of overdose deaths – far outweighed those of illicit drugs and alcohol.
Wimmera Drug Action Taskforce co-ordinator and Grampians Regional Health alcohol and drugs counsellor Brendan Scale said pharmaceutical misuse was a big issue in the Wimmera.
He said alcohol and ice were also concerning social issues in the region.
“Grampians Community Health has noticed that the number of people taking ice has spiked and it is currently outweighing issues with pharmaceutical misuse,” he said.
“But before ice, pharmaceutical misuse was the number one issue.”
Mr Scale said people needed to be more aware of their medicine intake.
“The bottom line is, pharmaceuticals are powerful substances that can affect life,” he said.
“If they are taken as a doctor prescribed they have a wonderful benefit, but they can get out of hand very easily and quickly.
“There are people who have had an accident, maybe during work or in a car crash, and they have been given strong medication for the pain, but if handled incorrectly those medicines can become drugs of addiction.”
Mr Scale said drug overdoses could happen to anyone.
“In our community we often stereotype drug dependence as only happening in the drug world,” he said.
“But it can happen to anyone.”
He said the five deaths in the Northern Grampians could have been avoided.
“We don’t have any more details about what drugs those deaths were associated with, but the report does show that prescription drugs are involved in the vast majority of situations,” he said.
“Valium is one of the drugs that features strongly as well, which is medicine you get from your doctor for anxiety.
“While five people isn’t a lot, it is still five people who have died.
“If they had recognised their issues earlier, or if those around them had recognised their issues, they could have had treatment and support and they would be alive and breathing today.”
Mr Scale said the report did not specify whether the deaths were accidental or not.
“We as a drug action taskforce recognised that there was an issue with pharmaceuticals a few years ago, so we took it on ourselves to raise awareness with health professionals and educate doctors,” he said.
“Because awareness has been raised there has been a reduction in pharmaceutical misuse, but more work is needed.”
Mr Scale said deaths in other Wimmera municipalities were not included in the report.
Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association chief executive Sam Biondo said he was concerned by the continuing high trends in drug deaths in Victoria.
“We are quite concerned that the figures are showing an upward trend in terms of the number of deaths across Victoria,” he said.
“There is particular concern about regional areas.”
Mr Biondo said there were a number of reasons why the problem was worse in regional areas.
“There are issues around isolation and people learning to self-medicate,” he said.
“Generally there is also a lack of other support services and people are left more on their own.
“There could be issues around the high levels of depression and anxiety in regional areas – communities might be hard hit by drought and that has social impacts.”
Mr Biondo said anyone taking medication should talk to their doctor before changing the dose or taking other substances.