Prescription painkiller related deaths have increased in the United States in the past few years said in a report released Tuesday by Federal researchers. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fatal overdoses of prescription narcotic painkillers rose from 1.4 per 100,000 Americans in the year 1999 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2011. Hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone are some examples of drugs that saw the most deaths due to overdoses. That means about 3,000 people died in 1999 from unintentional overdoses. By 2011, that number was up to nearly 12,000 deaths, the report said. The National Center for Health Statistics is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The good news is that despite the rise of fatal overdoses, the rate of increase has actually slowed down. "Although the rate is still increasing, it is not increasing quite as fast as it did between 2000 and 2006," said Holly Hedegaard, epidemiologist at CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), according to HealthDay. "From 1999 to 2006, the rate of deaths increased about 18 percent per year, but since 2006 it's only increasing about 3 percent per year.” Hedegaard thinks the slowing rate might be due in part to fewer deaths from methadone and some painkillers. Deaths from these drugs have leveled off or declined, she said.
According to NCHS, natural and semisynthetic opioid analgesics were involved in 2,749 deaths in 1999, whereas in 2011 they accounted for as many as 11,693 fatal overdoses. The report also found a striking increase in the number of deaths in people aged 55 to 64. In 1999, the rate was 1 per 100,000 people. By 2011, that number had jumped to more than 6 per 100,000, the findings showed.
There was also a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in white people from opioid use. It was 4.5 times higher in 2011 than it had been in 1999. The increase in the number of deaths from opioid medications doubled during the same time period for blacks and increased just slightly for Hispanics, the study authors said.
According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and chief medical officer of the Phoenix House Foundation in New York City, doctors are more cautious when prescribing these painkillers to minorities than Caucasians. This difference has helped lower prescription painkiller-related overdoses in minority communities.
"Doctors prescribe narcotic painkillers much more cautiously to their non-white patients," he said. "When doctors have a black or Latino patient, they are more concerned about the possibility of addiction or selling the medication, so they prescribe more cautiously. Stereotyping is having a protective effect on minorities."
Kolodny said these painkillers are intended for use in the days following surgery or an accident, or as palliative care for cancer patients. The bulk of the prescribing, however, is for chronic conditions. "That's what's really fueling the epidemic," he said.