VICTORIA, Australia -- Victorian police are investigating the disappearance of large amounts of a powerful, highly addictive painkiller from the state's ambulance service.
An internal investigation found that hundreds of vials of the drug Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, had been stolen and replaced with tap water.
A paramedic has been stood down.
Fentanyl is a potent narcotic and commonly administered by syringe to give patients pain relief.
The Ambulance Employees Association's Phil Cavanagh says the union is helping the paramedic.
"It's a tragedy on so many fronts," he said.
"I guess there are people who are susceptible to these sorts of drugs and I guess the opportunity arose and so unfortunately he may have an addiction."
Mr Cavanagh has criticised the ambulance service for letting the theft to go unnoticed for some time.
"Clearly the checks and balances are not there," he said.
"This should have been detected a long time ago, but it wasn't."
Ambulance Victoria's chief executive Greg Sassella says some patients might have been left in pain because of the theft.
"It is possible that some patients did not receive the expected level of pain reduction, or pain reduction was delayed while other medication was provided," he said in a statement.
"We are committed to our patients and will contact those who may not have experienced the desired levels of pain reduction."
Mr Sassella says all vials of the drug will now be kept in tamper-proof packaging.
"I want to assure the Victorian community that they are safe in the hands of our paramedics," he said.
The president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Stephen Parnis, says Fentanyl can provide enormous relief to patients when it is used correctly.
But he says the drug is also highly addictive and can be misused and abused.
"Fentanyl is a narcotic, it's in the same family of drugs as pethidine and morphine. It is a very powerful pain reliever and it is very effective in that regard," he said.
"But it also has a number of significant side effects, the most serious being respiratory depression. So if it's used in the wrong way, people can stop breathing and they are at risk of dying."
Dr Parnis has moved to reassure the public.
"I work on a daily basis with ambulance paramedics and I think in Victoria we have some of the world's best paramedical services," he said.
"I know these people, I know the measures that have been taken by Ambulance Victoria, and I also want to reassure the community that they have nothing to be afraid of."
There are suggestions crime figures could be involved in the theft of the drug, but the union's Phil Cavanagh hopes that is not the case.
"We just hope that our members are strong enough to perform their role to the best of their ability," he said.
Mr Cavanagh says the case is a tragedy for the paramedic involved.
"It more than likely spells the end of his career as a paramedic, which is a damn shame," he said.