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CDC Report Spells Out Dangers of Opioid Painkillers

October 04, 2009 08:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
A CDC report found that deaths caused by opioid analgesics such as methadone and OxyContin more than tripled between 1999 and 2006. The federal government is trying to cut down on the prescribed use of opioids, which began to be used widely as painkillers in the 1990s.

Methadone Deaths Increase Sevenfold

The number of poisoning deaths by opioid analgesics rose every year from 1999 through 2006, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, opioid deaths increased more than threefold, from 4,000 in 1999 to 13,800 in 2006.

Opioid analgesics, which include methadone, OxyContin and fentanyl, were responsible for 37 percent of poisoning deaths in 2006, up from 21 percent in 1999. Methadone accounted for nearly 40 percent of opioid deaths in 2006, after increasing nearly sevenfold from 790 in 1999.

In about half of opioid deaths, a second drug was also involved; benzodiazepines, which include sedatives such as Valium and Xanax, were most frequently one of the other drugs.

The CDC also measured the number of deaths by narcotics. Cocaine deaths nearly doubled between 1999 and 2006, while heroin deaths remained roughly the same.

Background: Dangers of opioid drugs

Opioid analgesics, particularly methadone, which was previously used mostly to treat heroin addicts, have since the 1990s been increasingly prescribed as pain relievers. According to a report released last spring by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of deaths by methadone has increased as methadone prescriptions increased eightfold between 1998 and 2006.

The GAO concluded that the increase in prescriptions made methadone more readily available as a recreational drug. More disturbingly, those who were prescribed the drug were also at risk, as they were often given doses that were too large and were unaware of the drug’s dangers. The GAO cited “Lack of knowledge about the unique pharmacological properties of methadone by both practitioners and patients,” as a contributing factor.

Caleb Banta-Green, a University of Washington research scientist, told The Associated Press that about half of the people in King County, Wash., who died by opiate medication used prescribed medication.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration directed U.S. opioid makers to institute more stringent safety measures to prevent misuse.

The FDA attention toward opioids had an effect on opioid prescriptions, according to a study published July in the journal Nature. It found that doctors have become reluctant to prescribe opioid painkillers “because of federal scrutiny of prescribing practices and fear of addiction.”

Reference: Prescription drugs

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