September 19, 2008

Methadone’s Lethality Seen in Deadly Trend

By Nancy Hull

The prescription drug that sickened nine local middle school girls has a startling record: It's killing a soaring number of people nationwide. And its death rate has spiked the most in teens and young adults.

Within the past decade, methadone-related deaths have increased more than other narcotic-related deaths, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In addition, the largest increase in deaths was for those ages 15 to 24.

A Benton High School boy and two Spring Garden Middle School girls face felony juvenile charges for a Wednesday morning incident that St. Joseph Police Department officials say began with a methadone pill exchange on a school bus and ended with the hospitalization of several girls.

After taking the painkiller, the girls vomited and showed signs of fatigue at school before going to the hospital. They are now fine.

Many others have not been so lucky.

"With methadone, there are not warning signs of an overdose like there are with other drugs," said Kay Sanford, a methadone expert who retired last year from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. "With many people, they take it, get tired, go lie down and die. It shuts down your respiratory system. Your lungs just quit."

Daring teens who have a low tolerance to drugs and seek methadone's euphoric high often don't realize when they've taken too much, she said, which can turn deadly.

While St. Joseph police have not yet determined the origin of the pills, teens commonly get hold of prescription pills by raiding parents' medicine cabinets. Or the pills trickle down from an illegal seller.

Methadone has grown more prevalent through the years, mostly because doctors are increasingly prescribing the drug, the national health statistics study says.

Doctors often prescribe the pills to patients with chronic pain. The positives of methadone include its low price tag, compared to painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. And it has few side effects.

The dangers include the lack of warning signs and that it can stay in your system longer than other painkillers, which gets dangerous when someone takes additional medication without realizing the methadone still works.

"Since methadone is so cheap, it should be a good alternative to hydrocodone and oxycodone, yet it appears that methadone is more lethal than the other drugs," Ms. Sanford said.

Aside from prescribing the pill form of methadone, doctors also prescribe it for addiction treatment, such as heroin addiction, because it reduces the craving for drugs like heroin. In that case, the drug typically comes in liquid or wafer form.

However, most of the methadone associated with overdoses originates from physicians prescribing the methadone pills as a painkiller, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Whether the increase in deaths relates to prescribing practices, improper taking of the medication by patients or diversion of the drug from a patient to someone else is difficult to pinpoint, the national health statistics study says.

Dr. Robert Permut, Heartland Health chief medical officer, warns that doctors should prescribe methadone pills only for chronic, long- term illnesses.

For example, a patient with shingles might need the drug, while someone who had an appendectomy likely does not, he said.

"The difference between acute and chronic pain is a big difference," Dr. Permut said.

A St. Joseph woman and recovering heroin addict who takes prescribed liquid methadone gets frustrated with what she sees as a misuse of methadone pills locally.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she knows people who receive methadone pill prescriptions from local doctors by saying they hurt a leg.

"These doctors give methadone out like candy," she said.

The patients then resell the drugs, she said.

"These people who get them are in their young 20s. And then they sell them to 17- and 18-year-old kids. And then those kids sell them to their little brothers and sisters," she said.

Nancy Hull can be reached at [email protected]

(c) 2008 St. Joseph News-Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.