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Emergency Visits For Prescription Abuse On The Rise

June 18, 2010

According to a study by two governmental agencies, emergency room visits linked to prescription painkillers abuse have jumped 111 percent over a five-year period, a shocking increase that threatens the public health system in the United States.

Emergency room visits involving abuse of painkillers such as oxycodone rose from 144,644 in 2004 to more than 305,850 in 2008, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a statement, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said that emergency department trips for nonmedical use of prescription painkillers are now as common as those for use of illicit drugs.

SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde said the increase in emergency department visits is straining the health care system.

“This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs,” Hyde said in a statement.

The spike in ER visits associated with nonmedical use of the painkillers occurred in both men and women, and in those younger than 21, as well as those 21 and older.

However, abuse of drugs such as morphine, fentanyl and hydromorphone, resulted in fewer ER visits. But they, too, have increased sharply, according to the study published in the CDC’s weekly report on death and disease.

Part of the increase reflects higher prescription rates among doctors in the United States, researchers said.

Between 2004 and 2008, the three most abused painkillers were Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Methadone. Oxycodone accounted for a 152 percent increase in ER visits. Hydrocodone accounted for 123 percent and Methadone accounted for 73 percent.

The study was based on 2004 to 2008 data from SAMHSA’s Drug Abuse Warning Network, a public health information system that monitors drug-related emergency hospital visits across the United States.

Health officials are not sure why painkiller abuse rose so dramatically. But the number of prescriptions has been increasing, so some of those who ended up in ERs may have gotten their medicine legally.

The authors did not estimate how many of the ER patients died. A CDC report last year found that the rate of drug-related deaths roughly doubled from the late 1990s to 2006, and most of the increase was attributed to prescription opiates such as the painkillers methadone, OxyContin and Vicodin.

“The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation’s fastest-growing drug problem,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement.

Many doctors and patients don’t fully recognize the medications’ dangers, said Susan Foster, a vice president at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

“People believe they’re safer because they’re prescribed by doctors and approved by the FDA,” she told The Associated Press.

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