Abuse of pain pills fueling deaths in West Virginia

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Prescription painkillers account for most fatal overdoses from legal drugs in West Virginia and contribute to an exploding problem of overdoses across the United States that is most pronounced in rural areas, U.S. government researchers said on Tuesday.

They said two-thirds of people who died from overdoses of legal pills in the state had no prescription for the drugs that killed them, suggesting many legal drugs are being diverted for non-medical uses.

“Use and abuse of prescription and particularly narcotic pain medications have increased dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” said Aron Hall of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Now in the United States, drug overdoses are the second-leading cause of unintended deaths behind motor vehicle deaths,” Hall said in a joint telephone interview with colleague Leonard Paulozzi of the CDC.

This epidemic is most pronounced in rural areas,” Hall said.

They studied abuse patterns in West Virginia, where overdose rates have risen 550 percent between 1999 and 2004. They said the data may help public health officials understand the role of prescription drugs in fatal overdoses, information that could be used to fight the problem.

Of 295 people who died from overdoses in 2006, 63 percent had used drugs without a prescription, and 21 percent got their medications from five or more doctors, a sign they had been “doctor shopping” to obtain the drugs.

Nearly two-thirds of the deaths involved prescription drugs that had not been prescribed to the victim, Hall said.

Methadone, used in substance abuse treatment and increasingly for pain relief, was involved 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 said.

The researchers said the study suggests a significant number of prescriptions are being diverted and distributed by others, and suggests doctors have a critical role to play in controlling the use of these drugs.

They urged doctors to strictly follow guidelines for managing narcotics. Such guidelines often involve contracts in which patients agree to strict monitoring in order to get the drugs.

“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,” Paulozzi said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Cynthia Osterman)

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