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Thursday, 9 December 1971
Page: 4541

Mr McIVOR (GELLIBRAND, VICTORIA) asked the Minister representing the Minister for Health, upon notice:

(1)   Has the Minister's attention been drawn' to the great concern expressed by doctors at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney, and at the Melbourne Royal Children's Hospital, duc to the sharp increase in the incidence of accidental drug overdosage with anti-depressants among children.

(2)   Can the Minister say whether antidepressants are the most common reason for the admission of children to these institutions due to drug overdose and whether admissions trebled over the past year resulting in the death of 2 children with others coming close to death from this cause.

(3)   Can he say whether the medical profession regards this situation as a new menace in the drug problem.

(4)   If so, will the Minister take urgent steps to investigate and control the situation.

(5)   What is (a) the extent of the use of this type of drug, (b) its cost to the user and (c) its cost of production.

Dr Forbes - The Minister for Health has provided the following answer to the honourable member's question:

(1)   Yes.

(2)   An article in the Medical Journal of Australia of 23rd October 1971, contributed by the Director of the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, stated that tricyclic anti-depressant overdosage is now the most common cause of admission of children to hospital for drug overdosage and that admissions from that cause have trebled. Information on this aspect from the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney, is not readily available but it is understood that there is an impression that there has been an increase in drug overdosage from anti-depressants among children admitted to that hospital.

(3)   The medical profession is expected to be familiar with the potential hazards of all drugs and to issue appropriate warnings to their patients, particularly where there is a possibility that children could have access to the drugs. Poisoning of children with drugs is related principally to the careless storage of drugs in the home and is not a new problem. Changes in the incidence of poisoning with a particular drug can be related to changes in prescribing habits of doctors.

(4)   In I960, the Commonwealth established the National Poisons Service. The Commonwealth also issues the National Poisons Register Manual, which contains details of the toxic constituents of a wide variety of chemical compounds, together with advice on appropriate diagnosis and treatment of poisoning. There is a close liaison between the National Poisons Service and Poisons Information Centres in the States and Territories.

Particular attention has also been given to the pan which safety containers may play in preventing the poisoning of children. In August 1970, the Director-General of Health wrote to all approved chemists, drawing their attention to a statement by the National Health and Medical Research Council at its 70th Session, in April 1970. At that session, Council expressed its concern at the incidence of poisoning in young children and commended the use of tablet containers that cannot readily be opened by young children. The DirectorGeneral of Health drew attention to the fact that there are containers of a type which was referred to by Council available in Australia and that, insofar as pharmaceutical benefit prescriptions are concerned, such containers come within the allowance provided by the Commonwealth for reimbursement of container costs. The DirectorGeneral urged chemists to give serious consideration to the problem of poisoning in childhood and to the feasibility of implementing the recommendation of the National Health and Medical Research Council concerning the use of safety closures for dispensed medicines.

(5)   (a) and (b) In the year ended 31st October 1971, 666,715 prescriptions for anti-depressants were provided as pharmaceutical benefits for pensioners and their dependants at no cost to the patient. In the same period 1,502,291 prescriptions were dispensed as pharmaceutical benefits to persons other than pensioners and their dependants at a cost of 50 cents patient contribution per prescription.

Figures relating to the usage of anti-depessant drugs provided in public hospitals and on non- pharmaceutical benefit prescriptions are not available to my Department.

(c)   Figures relating to production costs of antidepressant drugs are not available to my Department.

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