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Painkiller Deaths Up In Rural Areas

Dec 10, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Accidental deaths stemming from painkiller overdose and abuse are on the rise say U.S. government researchers.  According to Reuters, prescription pain medications account for the majority of fatal overdoses in the U.S., with rural areas experiencing the greatest impact. The  study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Looking specifically at West Virginia, the research team found that about two-thirds of those who died there from overdoses of legal medications had no prescription for the drugs which caused their deaths, leading the researchers to conclude that many legal drugs are being used “nonmedically.”  

"Use and abuse of prescription and particularly narcotic pain medications have increased dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years," Aron Hall,  of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and  one of the co-authors of the study, told Reuters.  "This epidemic is most pronounced in rural areas," Hall added.

According to Reuters, the study found that overdose rates in West Virginia increased 550 percent from 1999 to 2004.  The researchers indicated their data might help public health officials working to understand the link between prescription drugs and fatal overdoses.  In 2006, 295 people died from overdoses, reported Reuters, adding that 63 percent used drugs without a prescription and 21 percent received their medications from five or more doctors, which points to “doctor shopping," the practice of visiting an array of physicians to obtain drugs.

Hall told Reuters that about two-thirds of the fatalities involved prescription drugs not been prescribed to the victim.  Also, methadone, which is used in substance abuse treatment, such as heroin treatment, and is also being used more and more to relieve pain, was implicated in 40 percent of all deaths.  "We were aware that prescription drugs were the primary culprits in many of these deaths, but we did not know whether individuals had prescriptions for the drugs that ultimately killed them," Hall told Reuters.

The CDC researchers said the study suggests a significant number of prescriptions are being “diverted and distributed by others,” noting that physicians are crucial in controlling this epidemic and asking doctors to follow narcotic dispensing guidelines, which includes strict monitoring, said Reuters.   "Taken as directed, the drugs are safe.  But they are powerful drugs and they are not something to be taken recreationally at parties and that sort of thing," Leonard Paulozzi MD, MPH of the CDC said, reported Reuters.

Meanwhile, CBS and WebMD reported that Paulozzi and colleagues discussed the rise in accidental deaths from prescription painkillers in Pharmacoepidemiology and in Drug Safety’s online “Early View” edition.  The team also looked at CDC death certificate data on accidental opioid painkiller deaths involving oxycondone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and methadone, and found that such deaths rose 91 percent from 1999-2002, said CBS and WebMD.  The CDC team also found that the increase in accidental deaths as a result of prescription painkiller overdoses was in line with an increase in those drugs’ sales, said CBS and WebMD.


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