SIXTEEN Victorian babies aged less than a year were prescribed anti-depressants in 2007-08 – the highest number in Australia.
They were among 700 children under 10 given the controversial drugs during the past financial year.
The number of anti-depressant prescriptions, released by the federal Health Department, has prompted Health Minister Nicola Roxon to launch an investigation.
The figures reveal more than 100 Victorian children aged up to five were prescribed the drugs.
The statistics have alarmed medical experts, who say they cannot explain why so many infants and children would be given the drugs.
And the number could be higher, because the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme figures do not include anti-depressants sold privately.
Doctors have the legal right to administer scripts to patients of any age.
But Ms Roxon wants to find out whether children have been prescribed the drugs for no good reason.
A spokesman for Ms Roxon said her department was working with Medicare to find out if doctors prescribing the drugs could be identified and “targeted for active intervention”.
“And in the meantime, my department is working with the medical profession . . . to ensure that they are aware of the restrictions and appropriateness of prescribing anti-depressant medications,” he said.
Anti-depressants are not recommended or tested for use on children and babies, according to the Australian Medical Association.
And the long-term effects on the developing brain are unknown, according to Dr Choong-Siew Yong, of the AMA.
He said he could only speculate on the reasons why so many children were prescribed anti-depressants.
“It is very unusual to use these medications in any children under five and even for under-12s it’s not recommended,” Dr Yong said.
“I don’t understand why the figure is so high.”
Joe Tucci, of the Australian Childhood Foundation, said it was unclear why doctors would be prescribing these medications to such young patients.
“There is no reason I can think of that toddlers or younger should be prescribed anti-depressants . . . it’s frightening to think about,” Mr Tucci said.
“Doctors who are writing these prescriptions should explain exactly why.”
Mr Tucci said medicating children five years and older was also missing the point.
“We need to be looking at what is behind any behavioural issues,” he said.
Prof Gordon Parker, the executive director of the Black Dog Institute, said it was beyond comprehension that so many Australian children had received an anti-depressant drug.